Walking across the orchard takes Eugene longer now. But this doesn’t dissuade him. Even though the sky is washed with blue-gray mist and tiny sleet pellets bounce off the oilcloth sleeves of his old barn coat. Even though the ground is frosted and lumpy and altogether unsuitable for walking, he lumbers along with a cane in one hand and Wyeth’s leash in the other. His old boy has gray in his jowls and his vision is going, and oftentimes both of them hobble on their sore hips, but the Irish Setter knows the way; seems to know each dip and rise of the earth and steers Eugene’s path toward level footing. While he was getting dressed, sitting on the bed to don his trousers, socks, and boots, he tried to remember the lines of the poem, the one about the young man who was not strong enough for this world, and it was painful to admit to himself that he’d need to bring the book with him. It’s a small volume, fortunately, and it jostles along in his left pocket; the usual offering wrapped carefully and tucked into his right.
He takes long, careful breaths and watches the white vapor of his exhales dissolve into the mist. He recalls the questions he used to ask the rabbi when he was a child. So many questions. “What happens to your soul when you die?” “Where do the memories go?” “If there’s no heaven and no hell, how do we meet again?” Eugene smiles a bit to himself, remembering how he’d exasperated the poor man into finally ending with “Some things are just meant to be mysteries.”
Then his daughter’s voice comes back to him. “It isn’t your fault, you know.” He’d been so angry with her for saying that. Yelled out a blue streak he quickly regretted but never apologized for. Intellectually, he knew she was right. But what if… Everyone in the neighborhood knew the path of his morning walks. Up the hill, across the orchard, down again. They could set their clocks by him. What if the boy—it hurts too much to even think his name; even Trudy’s voice breaks on the rare times she talks about her son—what if the boy had hesitated, hoping Eugene would stop him?
Useless to think such things anymore, he tells himself. But still, each year he’s compelled to come here. And once again his feet and trusty Wyeth propel him across the unkempt and sometimes frozen meadow, through the sleeping peach and apple trees. To the one tree. The one he talked them out of cutting down.
It isn’t hard to find, the oak that borders the smaller fruit trees. Over time the boy’s four brothers had memorialized it, each in his own way. One year he saw a smear on it that he swore was lipstick, Trudy’s usual shade. The tree looks lonely. In his imagination he places Trudy beside it, in her blue down coat, her hair wild and not as red as it used to be, waiting for Eugene so they could walk back together.
Wyeth stops, looks back, as if to prompt him. “Thank you, my friend,” Eugene says, getting out the book of poems. He pulls in a breath, steadies himself as he finds the page, whispers the words that are carried away on the breeze. Then, so carefully, he takes the package from his other pocket, unwraps the tissue from the single purple blossom, Trudy’s favorite, and tucks it into a seam in the bark.
As he pats the trunk, in reverence, in regret, in memory, Wyeth starts, letting out a low bark. Eugene looks behind him. His daughter is crossing the meadow, one hand up in somber greeting. For a second his eyes fool him into seeing her as she was then, so small. Standing so straight and brave at the boy’s funeral. Eugene blinks and she’s grown, and married, and out of his house. She leans toward the oak and kisses the bark, right over the spot Trudy’s son James had carved his initials. Then links her arm through his. “If you’re done, Dad, let’s go inside. I’ll make you breakfast.”
Beautiful, sweet, thank you.