March sits on the braided rug in the living room looking at a photograph of her brother taken when he was sixteen. It was summer and Alan’s hair had been bleached almost white by the sun. He wears a polo shirt and jeans and white sneakers and he’s grinning right at the camera. He hadn’t yet failed at school, or marriage, or fatherhood. He was nothing more than a boy who didn’t know when to quit, or how to treat people; he was fun-loving, but selfish, with a regrettable nasty streak. March has driven out to the Marshes five times, and five times he has refused to answer the door. He’s gone, that’s what it is. Someone lives in that shack, all right, but the boy whose photograph March examines has vanished like a handful of dust.
The clock on the mantel is ticking, the one March’s father bought in Boston, the single possession she can’t bring herself to pack away. She has gone through the boxes of photographs, all arranged in albums and dated with Judith Dale’s neat handwriting. March will be keeping only two photographs for herself, to place into frames. One is of her and Hollis, a hazy snapshot in which they look like ragamuffins, with torn shorts and dirty knees, all dark eyes and know-it-all grins. The other is of Judith Dale skating on Olive Tree Lake on a winter day. Judith’s head is tossed back, her skin is luminous; all around her the world is icy and white. Growing up, March never noticed that Judith Dale was beautiful, or that she was young, far younger in that photograph than March is right now.
Today, March is taking a pot of asters to Judith’s grave. It is the perfect day for a solitary mission such as this-Hollis went to Boston on business; Gwen is safely at school. It’s only Richard who holds her back, even after she’s packed up the photograph albums. March spoke to him last night, finally, but he refused to understand.
“I don’t think I’m clear on this,” he kept repeating. “You’re staying?”
It was the school, she told him, so much better for Gwen: fewer drugs, fewer temptations. Just a change, a tryout. She’d forgotten how peaceful it was here, out in the country: she’d actually been inspired to work, so could he send on a box of her tools, and the packet of semiprecious stones in her night table drawer? Gwen was so happy, after all, she was doing so well; why, she’d even begun taking care of that old horse Belinda used to ride.
“Tarot?” Richard had said. “She’s spending time at the Farm?”
For those new to lying, it’s easy to get caught.
“Not exactly,” March had answered.
“Well, what exactly?”
March guessed that Richard had the bedroom window open as he spoke to her, and that the scent of lemons was filling the room. She had taken special care of that tree in their garden, forsaking poppies and jade plants whenever there was a drought, using all her rationed water for that one tree.
“Richard,” she had said, and for a very long time there was no response.
“You’re not going to do this to us, are you?” he had finally asked.
She thinks about the sound of his voice, so far away, as she gets her gloves and coat from the closet, then takes the asters from the table in the front hall. When she goes to the door, the dog follows, blocking her way.
“Move,” March tells it.
The dog looks up at the closet where its leash is kept on a shelf, then makes a noise, somewhere between a yip and a bark.
“Oh, all right,” March tells the thing. “But behave.”
She grabs the leash, and allows Sister to run ahead to the Toyota.
“Stay away from the flowers,” March says as the dog situates itself beside the asters. “Don’t eat them.”
When March gets to the cemetery, there are no other cars in sight. She parks in a pile of wet, brown leaves, then clips on the dog’s leash and takes the flowers.
“Don’t pull,” she tells Sister, who seems to know exactly where they’re going.
There’s a driving range which borders the cemetery, and March’s father used to joke that was the reason why they couldn’t keep gravediggers on the job. Man after man had gotten beaned on the head, and every one of those stray balls had been hit by Bill Justice, who continued to be a terrible golfer even though he went out to practice nearly every day, in an effort to improve his weekly game with Henry Murray. Now March wonders if the Judge only said he was going to the driving range; if, in fact, he spent those times with Judith Dale. She wonders too if her father knew-if he closed his eyes to what was going on in spite of his warm feelings for Louise. Amazing what people will tolerate. Richard, for instance, knows the way March feels about Hollis, and yet before he hung up the phone he’d said, Just come back. It will be all right. We’ll manage.
They have reached Judith’s grave, and although the dog sits quietly, there’s a tremor in its leg.
“Good girl,” March croons, but the dog is shivering now.
Wet leaves have attached themselves to March’s boots and to Sister’s white coat. It’s extremely quiet here, not even a jet overhead.
“Your favorites,” March tells Judith Dale as she places the pot of flowers at the foot of the grave site, which is still bare earth.
March sits on the grass beside the grave, and the dog comes to lie beside her, so close March can feel it shivering through fabric and fur. They walk back to the car slowly, until Sister decides to chase a few scarlet leaves, the last ones that fall from a tall maple. They stop at the knoll from which March can see her father’s plain gray headstone, and nearby, the headstone marking the spot where Alan’s young wife was laid to rest. When they get to the car, Sister sits in the front seat. March navigates the narrow road, and then, as she’s about to turn onto a larger drive, something runs in front of the car. Between the falling leaves and the asphalt there is a flash of red. March steps on the brake, hard.
Nothing but leaves and silence; March would have thought she’d imagined what passed before her, but Sister is scratching at the window, barking like mad. Then, from beneath a hedge of evergreens, the creature takes off again. It’s one of the last of the foxes, a great-great-grandson of one who survived the open hunting season all those years ago. It’s running as fast as it can, headed for the open fields west of the cemetery. Red lightning that doesn’t look back, it’s gone in the blink of an eye.
March remains there, with her foot on the brake, and Sister’s barks echoing. As a little girl, March used to wait out on the front porch in the dark, hoping to see one of the foxes who were so numerous back then. She could never stay up late enough, so she came up with a plan. She’d catch one for her own and keep him in a box in the kitchen, in one of those crates they used to store potatoes and yams. She’d make certain he stayed warm under a flannel blanket, she’d feed him buttered toast and train him to dance to music, in a circle, on his toes. On some nights, she’d allow him to sleep beside her in her bed, his pointed nose on her pillow, and she’d sing him to sleep.
“Don’t be silly,” Judith Dale told her one summer night, when March wasn’t more than seven or eight, and Mrs. Dale had discovered her out past her bedtime, poised on the porch with a fishing net, a hammer, and the vegetable crate. “You’ll never catch a fox that way.”
Mrs. Dale brought March to the chestnut tree, where she drew a circle in the dirt with a stick. She took some sugar cubes from her pocket, the kind she favored for her coffee and tea. She let March crush the sugar cubes, then sprinkle them around the circle.
“Spread it thin,” Judith told her, and March was especially pleased that Judith clapped her hands, approving her work when it was done.
“Bullshit,” Alan had responded when March informed him that she’d trap a fox by the morning. And when indeed all the sugar was found to be gone, Alan laughed out loud. “Anything could have eaten that sugar, dummy. Raccoons, stray dogs, mice. There are any number of explanations, Marcheline, and none are as stupid as yours.”
But later that day, Mrs. Dale took March inside the circle and pointed out the tracks of a fox’s lovely, sly paws. That’s when March decided that if she couldn’t keep a fox in the kitchen, she’d have one in the woods. For a very long time, she left out treats. Even after Hollis had come to live with them, she was sometimes found drawing a circle with a stick, setting out bits of sugar, or some cookies, or a fresh corn muffin she’d stolen from the pantry.
“Is that for your boyfriend?” Hollis said to her once, when she was distributing slices of apple around the circle.
“No,” she said, and then she’d turned her back on him. You’re my boyfriend, is what she was thinking, and after all this time, she’s thinking it still.
When the fox disappears, March turns onto Route 22 and heads for Guardian Farm, hoping that Hollis will be back from Boston. The autumn light is sharp, and March reaches for her sunglasses. She switches on the radio and sings along to a song she didn’t think she knew the words to. She has the sense that she’s driving backward in time; the sky is so much smaller here than it is out west, a bowl of heaven set above their pastures and their town. She eases into the turn off Route 22 carefully, since it’s a place where it’s difficult to see oncoming traffic. She drives along the fields the Coopers always planted, but which are now thick with little more than wild clematis and witch hazel. There’s only one tended patch, where Hank has been raising pumpkins, and that crop has done well. There are several rows of huge, fat pumpkins, still on their thick, ropy vines.
March remembers coming here with Hollis and wishing the Farm belonged to them. The house looked so much grander and more elegant back then, and Annabeth Cooper’s perennial gardens were amazing, especially her rose garden, where the blooms were as big as cabbages. March used to study Richard and Belinda with real interest. How strange it was that a rich girl would wear torn sweaters and keep her hair bunched into a rubber band. How odd that Richard should cry when he discovered a worthless old crow someone had shot for sport. She found them so curious, like creatures from a distant planet; she couldn’t help but be interested, and she stayed interested long after Hollis grew tired of their spying game.
It’s Hollis she spies now, out by his truck, back from Boston, where he’s met with one of his lawyers concerning an acquisition of more condos in Orlando. The dogs are milling around, and every once in a while he calls to them harshly, when one nips another, or when they all begin to bark, an off-key plaintive sound that carries over the hill. Still, Hollis is in a better mood than usual; he always gets this way when he buys something. For a brief time at least, he’s not concerned with getting more. There’s enough for everyone, Judith Dale always told him when he sat down at the dinner table, but anyone could tell he didn’t believe her.
Hollis is wearing a gray suit made in Italy which cost more than any single item of clothing anyone in this town has ever owned. He’s learned that people are foolish enough to believe what they see, so he dressed rich for his trip into Boston. He’s up in the cab of the truck, in spite of his expensive suit, when March drives in. The dogs start howling and begin to circle the Toyota. In the front seat, Sister hops up to look out the window; seeing those yapping red dogs, the terrier goes berserk. If March let Sister out of the car now, it would attack the entire pack, for all the good that would do.
“Call off your hounds,” March says when she gets. out of the car.
“Kick them,” Hollis suggests as he lifts a box out of the truck. He’s gotten a new computer in Boston so he can hook up directly to his bank. He can sit at the desk in the parlor, where old Mr. Cooper smoked his cigars, and manage his finances beside a window which overlooks one of the prettiest views of his property.
March follows Hollis into the house. Just being this close to him makes her feel all jangly, as if someone has shaken her like a globe filled with snow. She can feel his energy snapping at her, charging her up, even when his attention is turned to this computer in a box.
“I’ll be right back,” he tells her. “Make yourself comfortable.”
March hasn’t been inside this house for a long time, and now that she is, she’s certainly not comfortable. If anything, she’s disoriented. This isn’t the way she remembers the Coopers’ kitchen, with its polished copper sinks and the long oak table that was always piled high with wonderful things to eat. The Coopers hired an Italian cook they called Antsy, so named because she couldn’t stay still for a minute, unless she was baking something delicious. There was a housekeeper as well, a woman from the village, the mother of one of the girls from school; Alison Hartwig was the girl’s name, a quiet blue-eyed girl who didn’t have much to say.
The kitchen now has a spartan quality; that which isn’t a necessity isn’t here. Tiles that had to be ripped up when some pipes burst one terribly cold winter have never been replaced. The slate countertops are cloudy from years of thoughtless cleaning with Comet. The copper sinks have turned the color of moldy leaves. And yet the kitchen is clean. There are two coffee cups, rinsed and drying on a wooden rack; there’s not a crumb on any of the counters, not a dish left out on the table.
When Hollis comes back, he goes to the sink to get himself some cool water. After he’s drained the glass, he comes to stand beside March. He takes her hand and examines it.
“She used to wear this on her left hand,” he says of Judith’s emerald. “Like a wedding ring.”
March leans in close to kiss him, but Hollis takes a step back.
“What?” March asks.
He takes her other hand, her left hand, on which she wears her wedding ring. “If you were the one who’d gone away, I would have waited. No matter how long it took.”
“Well, I did until I just couldn’t anymore,” March says, trying to pull away.
“Wouldn’t,” Hollis says back.
March laughs. He used to do this to her all the time, contradict her however he could, just to get his way. Then she sees. It’s no laughing matter. He’s not letting go of her hand.
There is no measuring love, other than all or nothing or that space in between. This is all, she sees that in him. This is more than everything. Could she live without this, what he’s offering to her? Could she turn away and settle for anything less? Another man would say, I can’t tell you what to do or what to believe. Another man would play this as though it were a game.
“Want to know what I think?” he says to March.
She raises her chin and looks at him, even though she’s afraid to find out. He seems extremely pleased with himself, as if he’d figured the answer to a difficult riddle.
“I think you were never married to him.”
“Oh, really?” She tries to sound amused, but that’s not how she’s feeling. She’s feeling as though she can’t stop looking at him: she can’t even try.
“Really,” he says.
The white shirt he’s wearing looks crisp and well pressed, but it turns out the fabric is smooth to the touch, a delicate linen that feels like silk. Hollis kisses her so deeply that her stomach lurches; if she ever had any willpower, it gives way. He’s got his arms around her, so that she has her back against the sink. She can feel the cold copper against her back. Hollis pulls down the zipper of her jeans. He’s calling her baby, he’s telling her it’s always been this way between them and it always will be. No one could ever love her the way he does, not in this lifetime, not in this world.
“Come on,” Hollis says, when he’s got her jeans and her underpants pulled down, as if she planned to stop him. As if she could stop herself. She knows she should tell him to wait. He has Hank living with him; how can they be sure the boy isn’t already home from school? It’s a bright afternoon, anyone could turn up at the door. Ken Helm with a check for the wood he’s culled from land Hollis owns. Harriet Laughton collecting for the library fund.
But March doesn’t tell him no. How could she? She wants him more at this moment than she’s ever wanted anything: air or memory, life or breath. She wraps her legs around him, with her back pressed into that cold copper sink. She wants him to do whatever pleases him; she wants him to do it all. She’s so hot that the copper behind her is growing warm to the touch; soon the metal will ping with heat, ready to burn. The way he thrusts himself inside her is incredibly greedy, but she’s greedy too. That’s the secret Hollis knows about her. She’s no different than he is.
“You want it, don’t you?” is what she thinks he’s whispering to her, or maybe she’s only admitting this fact to herself.
He’s making love to her in a way he never did before; he’s hungrier, more impassioned. March moves her hand beneath the fabric of his shirt. It’s still him, that same boy. There is his heart, right in her hand. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Let them say what they wish; let them gossip. She places both hands on the sink. palms down, to support her weight while he fucks her like this, as if the world were about to end, as if he could never get enough. The metal sink is pressing against her, cutting into her skin, so that later she will have little indentations in her flesh, and blisters, as though she’s been burned.
He has his face against her neck, and she can feel all that heat inside him. She hears him say her name in a strange, garbled way, and then she’s gone. She’s shattered into pure energy; she’s been absorbed into whatever he is, that sulfur, that heat. There is no way to measure this; no scale will do. March finds that she’s crying; the heat that has owned her rises to form a single sob as she arches her head back and wraps herself around him, tighter still.
Outside, there is plenty of sunlight. Not a cloud in the sky. The dogs mill around the back door and whimper. No leaves fall from the maple trees beyond the driveway. No birds fly overhead. And even later, when the blue dusk begins to cross the horizon, it will still be a rare and nearly perfect day. Poor Sister, locked in the car for so long, barking for hours, will yelp hoarsely when March finally comes out of the house. The dog will eye March resentfully as they start down the driveway, then turn onto the back road. Halfway home, March will stop beside a stone wall where the bee balm still grows. She’ll remove her wedding band to find a white circle; to hide that mark, she’ll switch the emerald onto her left hand, and although she’d meant to rush home and start supper, she’ll stay beside the wall for longer than she’d intended, until the road ahead is completely dark.