(Fall photo not available at this time)
The Very Last
The last of the leaves hung heavily in shades of orange, poised on their branches, a breath away from a long fall to the cold earth, and hopes and fears clung there with them. The season’s progress could be measured as much by the forests’ changing mosaic as by the power of the frost’s adhesion: a shovel blade stuck to the grass, a bale of hay seized to another, left too long outside, and the wheels of a cart frozen in ruts in the frigid earth. The grey Vermont sky walked by slowly overhead, a crowd of dense, heavy clouds making their arduous way north for the winter, even as the last of the geese fled south. Shimmering jets of heat and tiny whips of grey smoke wove together from a chimney of colonial brick, whose surrounding structure stood frigid, paint chips crumbling like snowflakes, and dwarfed by towering maples. A small herd of horses stood chewing, steaming, pawing—hot beneath their blankets—and the worn, tired face of Richard Godfrey watched them, framed in a frosted window, two panes over from a hanging blue star with a red outline that meant a soldier had gone to war. The face disappeared momentarily, and the smoke from the chimney increased its volume and went two shades darker, then the face, with its weariness, and its soft, kind eyes, reappeared to watch the horses on one side of the old barn and the Holsteins on the other.
The smell of coffee wafted through the house, growing slowly stronger, and finally reaching the intensity of completion. A small radio beneath a cupboard broadcast the morning news cycle for the third time already: advances by government forces in Nigeria, the next G7 conference in Berlin, a major typhoon moving towards Manila again, and the last American troops boarding flights on their way out of Afghanistan for good—his heart still leapt at the last, even in its third repetition. Richard walked to the kitchen for his breakfast of two eggs with the dark yolks of his own hens, a thick slice of white toast, and the pot of coffee, as murky as his thoughts. He turned to the small round table, two chairs, two white, lacy mats, salt, pepper, one plate, one cup, one fork, one knife, and he sat down to eat his breakfast.
Richard ate, methodically, with deliberation, his eyes fixed pensively on some point far outside the window, beyond Vermont, beyond oceans and mountains. He allowed the emptiness of the house and the farm to consume him for a moment, his mind and his heart transcending the vast distance, soaring to great heights and plummeting to great depths. Minutes passed.
His head moved at last, slowly at first, then with a start, turning left and right, and he looked around, as if suddenly remembering where he was in place and time. He brushed the last crumbs from his thick, greyed moustache as he stood and proceeded to dismantle breakfast, dishes in the machine, table and counters cleared, everything in perfect order immediately after the meal, just as Catherine always did, and he hadn’t heard from her in over a week.
Twenty years ago, almost to the day, there had been laughter, music, dancing, family, friends, and his bride in an elegant white dress, in this very house, and the feeling by everyone present that this could go on forever. Now, he pulled on his boots, jacket, hat, and gloves, and began a lonely morning of checking sap lines and shifting hay from the lower fields to the hay shed. Walking the lines was therapeutic, and each journey up and down the big hill on the small orange tractor took 15 minutes of jerking and bouncing with a 1000lbs of white, plastic-wrapped round bale in the grabber. Driving along the narrow, winding dirt road through the patchwork of fields, it was hard to imagine what Catherine must be doing flying over the Hindu Kush or possibly on her way home. When he had stacked ten bales, enough hay for four weeks, he walked back up to the house, stepping onto the front lawn just as Jared, the mailman, pulled over to the shoulder in his beat up green Jeep. Jared was middle-aged, tall and gaunt, his lanky figure filled the right side of the vehicle.
“Afternoon Rick. Got some mail for you,” he said.
“Oh yeah? Anything from Catherine in there?” Richard asked, approaching the car window.
“You know I don’t ever look. Have you heard from her lately?”
“She called last week, but I haven’t heard anything since. Everybody is supposed to be out of there this week though, so I’m hopeful.”
“Yeah, I heard that. The radio said not later than next Saturday. Sure will be nice to have her back. I miss her jokes, and her cookies. ” said Jared with a grin.
“Yeah, I guess you haven’t had any cookies for six months either.” Richard said with a smile as he shuffled through the mail in his hand, mostly junk, two agri-catalogs, and an insurance bill addressed to Mrs. and Mr. Lt.Col. Catherine T. Rhodes, USAF. No letters, no news, not that he was expecting any.
“Remember the time she ran over the mailbox with the tractor?” Richard asked.
“Of course I do, how could I forget. She tried to prop it back up like nothing had ever happened, even though the whole thing was smashed up. Every time I tried to open the door the whole thing would fall over.” Jared said, laughing.
Richard laughed too, the worn lines of his face stretching into a wide smile.
“She is always up to some caper.” Said Richard between his laughs. “The week before she left, she put the cows in the horse stalls and hid the horses in the lower field, then asked me to take care of evening checks. Imagine my shock when I walked into the barn to a chorus of mooing from eight big holsteins!”
Jared erupted in a chorus of laughter, and both men laughed freely for several seonds. Finally Jared broke off and said “She is so funny. It will be great to have her back next week.”
The jeep crept forward a few inches, and Richard took the hint, backing off and saying “See you tomorrow Jared, same time.”
“See you then, Richard. Take care.”
Richard ate a quick lunch and spent the afternoon hard at work, letting the labor take over his thoughts. The pile of wood outside the basement grew steadily into long, tall, ordered stacks within. He dug out the salt, shovels, and plow blade for the first dustings of snow that had to come soon, and the barn needed a few new bulbs. The hours passed steadily, as they always did, and the stalls in the barn got cleaned and the animals were fed.
Finally, in the failing light of day, a single blade of sunlight shot across the horizon onto an isolated stand of maple trees, exploding into an orange fireball reflected on the dying leaves, and Richard Godfrey ate alone yet again, distracted. The roaring, crackling fire resonated throughout the empty house, and the radio droned on again, monotone, the voices lost this time in a swirling glass of scotch. Photos of Catherine looked down from the mantle, riding a horse, smiling from the garden, radiant in her wedding dress, and he let the memories parade through his mind, each one as fresh as if they had been taken yesterday. Richard sat remembering long enough to finsh his drink, then he switched off the radio and sat heavily, releasing the day’s labors into a lounge chair, alternating between reading, and dozing. His eyes slowly lost the battle with his body, and he dozed fitfully, his neck pained at an unnatural angle, his feet on the coffee table, and the night closed in around him, advancing beyond the still house, as a troubled world kept turning.
In the stillness of the night, Richard’s sleep heavy eyes flicked suddenly open, his senses coming slowly to life, his foggy mind trying to sort out what had woken him. He wore no watch, but he guessed it was early morning, between 2 and 3, and he strained his ears for anything out of place, craning his stiff neck toward the window, listening intently.
Then he heard it, the distinct sound of a car door being closed, then another, and another, followed immediately by the sound of voices. Richard was up now, walking swiftly to the window in the kitchen overlooking the garage. The bright xenon lights of a modern car still illuminated the garage doors, but the light’s brilliance was blinding and it enhanced the darkness of the night. He instinctively brushed his wrinkled, slept-in clothes and pressed a calloused hand down the length of his face to clear the last of the sleep from his features. He thought briefly about the pistol in the drawer upstairs, but the sound of the muffled voices talking openly as they approached the house convinced him that whatever was happening, whoever was outside, there was no danger. He made up his mind and walked to the front door, flicking on the front porch lights as he reached for the bolt. The voices instantly stopped as he turned it and the seal on the door was loudly broken, but the advancing sound of gravel crunching on the walkway replaced them. He stepped toward the door, stood centered in its frame, and called out hesitantly into the night, “Who’s there, what’s going on?”
“Mr. Godfrey?” a man’s voice responded.
“Yes. What’s going on? Who’s there?”
Out of the darkness appeared three figures, shadows in one moment, then instantly leaping into detail as they entered the circle of the porch light. Their tailored and crisply ordered suits were the dark blue of a stormy sky, their hats the distinctive and unmistakable shape of a 50s era diner cook, and the harsh white of the florescent bulbs blazed brightly, almost blindingly, off of a sea of medals and insignia. Airmen, Richard knew at once. Officers. Pilots. Men from Catherine’s guard unit.
Richard’s eyes flashed with recognition, and before anyone could say a word, his head began to move slowly from side to side, a silent denial of his growing realization of why these men could possibly be here in the middle of the night. His breath formed vanishing clouds of vapor in the frigid air, the silvery mist drifting upward then vanishing into the darkness. One cloud. Two clouds, then nothing—his breath caught in his chest. One of the airmen opened his mouth to speak, but Richard raised his hand, cutting him off and increased the force of his shaking head. He looked into each face for some reassurance, some sign of the mistake, looking up the path to the car as if hoping to see her there, but there were only these men and their uniforms and their words, and the first snowflakes of winter making their slow journey to the cold dark earth.