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15

Richard Cooper arrived today, in spite of a storm that was rattling up and down the East Coast. Ken Helm picked him up at Logan, and later that evening, at the bar of the Lyon Cafe, Ken tells people he would have recognized Richard anywhere. Sure, Richards not a kid anymore, but he looks the same anyway. Hes tall and thin, the way all the Coopers were, and hes just as distracted as ever, although he can certainly tell a good joke, Ken Helm will attest to that. Richard Coopers got thousands of bug jokes hes picked up at entomology conferences. Hes got a Why did the beetle cross the road? series which cracks up his students completely, although right now he tends to favor tick jokes. Whats the difference between a tick and a lawyer? he asked Ken Helm as they were driving up on I-95. Its one he heard at a conference in Spokane last winter. The tick drops off after its sucked your blood.

Richards students appreciate him for more than his jokes. They respect him for all those aspects of his personality which most annoy March. He gets lost in what he does and can discuss a single topic, a variety of fungus-inhabiting Tenebrionidae, for instance, for hours. Hes too kindhearted, and doesnt stand up for himself. As a graduate student, several discoveries he made in the field were claimed by his adviser, but Richard never cared about such things as who gets credit-its the discovery that matters to him. Its doing the right thing. When he believes in something, he wont back down. Hes tenacious as hell when he has to be, not unlike the trout-stream beetle, which will cling to anything, defying icy streams and swift currents in order to get where it is convinced it must go.

This clarity, this single-mindedness of purpose, is the reason why Belinda inherited Guardian Farm and Richard was left with nothing. His father was trying to teach him a lesson about obedience, and before Mr. Cooper could reverse his rash decision to disinherit his son both he and Richards mother were killed at the turn onto Route 22. For all these years hes been away, Richard has only come back for funerals. His parents. His sister. His sisters only child. Now they have laid Judith Dale to rest in the same cemetery, and Richard plans to pay his respects at the grave site. But he doesnt have long to do so. Its late Friday afternoon when he arrives, and he has to present a lecture to his graduate seminar on Monday morning. He hasnt asked his neighbors to feed the stray cat living in his garage or bring in his mail. He has his return ticket for the noon plane on Sunday, and hes made reservations for March and Gwen as well. Just in case.

If luck is on his side, theyll all be out of here in less than forty-eight hours. Yes, its true, he believes in fate. Hes a scientist who happens to be convinced of the reality of destiny. His colleagues might mock this philosophy, but then let them explain why one sand beetle wanders into a spiders web while another passes by, unharmed. Love, it now seems, is not what Richard thought it would be. Its thicker and heavier and much more complicated than he would ever have imagined. He knows that his wife has been with another man, a man he happens to despise and holds responsible for his sisters death-and yet here he is, chatting with Ken Helm, insisting that Ken take the forty bucks hes offering for fetching him from the airport. Love has made him surprise himself. He would never have believed it possible, but its turned out that he is a man who can walk up to a closed door on a murky November day, wearing his one good suit, and knock without hesitation, waiting while the rain comes down around him, even though hes not wanted. He can do this and not think twice, just the way he can spend hours watching a wounded cedar beetle and weep over its rare beauty, as well as its agony.

Richard is certain that other species fall in love-primates, of course, and canines-but he has wondered about his beetles. There are people who would surely get a chuckle out of the mere suggestion, but in Richards opinion its pure vanity to presume that love exists only on our terms. A red leaf may be the universe for the tortoise beetle or the ladybird. A single touch the ecstasy of a lifetime. And so, here he is, in love despite everything. It is he, stupider than any beetle, and far more obstinate, who has traveled three thousand miles, even though he fully expects to be turned away.

Gwen answers the door, and as soon as she sees Richard she throws her arms around him.

Daddy, she cries, although he doesnt remember her calling him this before-it was Pop, he thinks, or Pa.

Gwen pulls Richard into the hallway, where a little white terrier jumps on his legs.

Who is this? Richard asks. He puts down his overnight case, then crouches to pet the dog.

Its Sister. Gwen cannot believe how glad she is to see her father. He seems so real. So him. She belonged to Mrs. Dale.

Well, Sister, Richard says. The dog has politely sat down before him, and now tilts its head to listen when he speaks. How do you do?

They do like hell, if the truth be known. All of a sudden, Gwen is the one in charge of everything, like it or not. Her mother once saw to all of the chores, but no longer. March cant seem to deal with the trivial details of domestic life, they seem beyond her somehow, small but impossible tasks. If Gwen doesnt do her own laundry, she has no clothes. If she doesnt go food shopping or make the beds, no one else will. Once, while hurrying through the village on her way to meet her friend Chris, Gwen passed by some woman who had her collar turned up and a dreamy look on her face, and it wasnt until Gwen and Chris had ordered french fries and Cokes at the Bluebird Coffee Shop that she realized the woman shed walked past was her mother.

Gwen is now responsible for herself in some deep, irrevocable way. There is no one to tell her what to do; for all intents and purposes, shes on her own. And although this is exactly what she once thought she wanted, her situation now brings her to tears.

Whats wrong? her father asks, but how can she tell him?

Im fine, Gwen insists. Im just glad to see you.

You look wonderful, Richard tells his daughter. Although seeing her so grown-up and so pretty without all that makeup makes him realize how much a person can change in a short period of time. Wasnt it only weeks ago that he worried constantly? That he feared she would return home with some new part of her body pierced and some new drug in her backpack?

Richard hangs his wet raincoat in the closet. His shoes are soaked, as are the cuffs of his slacks, but he will simply have to do. He cant make himself any more presentable before seeing March.

Well? he says when he turns back to Gwen.

Well, what? Gwen asks.

Your mother. Id like to talk to her.

I dont believe you would, Gwen thinks. To her father, however, she suggests that her mothers schedule is erratic.

Then lets fix some coffee so its ready when she gets here, Richard suggests.

The rain outside has become sleet, which hits against the window as though stones were being tossed from above. Coffee on a night like this isnt a bad idea. Richard has to duck to pass through the doorway into the kitchen. Hed forgotten how different the scale of these old New England houses can be; how wide the pine floorboards, how low the ceilings, how tilted the rooms from years of settling.

Coffeepot? Richard asks.

He used to cook when he first came calling on March. He and Alans wife, Julie, had a great time of it, she as his amicable assistant, he willing to try any new recipe. Once they fixed pasta with a maple syrup topping; another time they tried something called bootheel pie, made out of turnips and celery and onions.

Filters? he asks.

Gwen sits on a stool, her legs pulled up. She has spent this afternoon with Hank, walking Tarot all the way into the village and then back again. When Hank kissed her, the horse tried his best to come between them.

Forget it, buddy boy, Hank teased. Shes mine.

Just for that, Gwen kissed the old racehorse on his soft nose. His breath was surprisingly sweet, like new hay.

Hank had let out a groan. I cant believe you did that.

Would you ever lie to me? Gwen had asked then.

What are the circumstances? Is it that I know youre kissing a horse who has terrible breath? Or is it that I know theres going to be a nuclear war and we have only twelve hours to live, and I have to decide whether to ruin the last twelve hours of your life with fear, or let you enjoy the little time you have left?

Nuclear war.

Gwen had climbed onto the stone wall, then had pulled herself onto Tarots back, where she stretched out, as though the horse were an extremely tall and comfortable couch.

Id tell you. Hank had grabbed the lead and theyd begun a slow walk back to the Farm. He didnt even have to consider; thats what impressed Gwen most. What about you? Hank had asked. Would you tell the truth?

Tarot had stumbled then, and Gwen had been forced to hang on to his mane: then shed jumped off, so that Hank could lift Tarots rear left leg and see to the problem. There was a tiny, sharp rock wedged into the frog of the horses hoof, which Hank removed with a penknife. Gwen never did get to answer. Just as well, since she hadnt known what to say at the time. But now, in this kitchen, watching her father crouch down to search the cabinets under the counters for coffee filters, it has all become quite clear. Its not the lie thats the problem: its the distance the lie forges between you.

Daddy, dont bother with the coffee. This is what Gwen has to say, even when she sees the look on her fathers face. She wont be back until late. She never is. Gwen swallows; but it doesnt help. Words such as these always hurt when you say them. Shes with him every night. She may not come home at all.

Richard blinks, as if by doing so he could bring into focus a vision other than the one Gwen is offering.

Im sorry, Gwen says. She feels as though everything is her fault. Shes only fifteen, why does she have to feel so damned responsible? She cant even tell her father about Hank, for fear hell disapprove. When her father leaves the room, to make a fire in the fireplace, Gwen decides to finish the coffee he started, and she brings him a cup, with a little milk and a little more sugar, the way he likes it.

Richard gratefully accepts the coffee, and for one delightful instant he has the sense of being fortunate. She is a good girl, he sees that. Gwen pulls up a stool for herself beside the easy chair where hes settled. Shes a good person.

Sister sits by the window and barks, and Richard finds himself wondering if Gwen is wrong about March, if perhaps thats her at the door now. The visitor, however, is only a rabbit, one who brazenly sits on the porch in order to escape the bad weather.

We never had rabbits around here when I was growing up, Richard tells his daughter. There were too many foxes for that. If you walked through the woods at night, youd see them. Especially at dusk. At first youd think you were imagining footsteps.

Sister has forsaken the door and come to join them, stretching out on the braided rug.

Everything would be gray, even the horizon. And then youd see it, all at once.

A fox. Gwen smiles.

Richard nods. Once in a while, in the winter, after a snow, youd come upon a dozen or more of them, and then youd know something was happening that no human could understand, or even recognize. They call it a foxes circle, a meeting held as if there were a board of directors of the woods. I think about the foxes circle when I do fieldwork. Theres world upon world out there, with different rules.

I wonder why they all disappeared.

They found a single rabid specimen one season and that was the end of foxes on this hill.

It was the year when Hollis left town. Richard recalls that each time he came to call on March, hed hear gunfire in the woods. He was grateful to Hollis back then; in leaving, Hollis had given Richard an opportunity hed never guessed he would have. Funny the things you remember. Richard definitely remembers that March would smile whenever she opened the door and saw him. He knows he didnt imagine that.

When I was really little, he says now, maybe five or so, my sister found an orphaned fox. She kept the kit in her bedroom, secretly of course, because my mother would have had an outright conniption and made us all submit to a series of rabies shots if she ever caught sight of the thing. My sister kept an opossum one year, and then there was a crow with a broken wing that I found-she took care of that crow for months. My mother went crazy when she discovered wild animals had been in the house, but my sister was surprisingly strong-willed.

Belinda.

Thats right. Richard regrets not telling Gwen more about his family, but for the longest time his personal history seemed extremely distant. Now, its back. All he has to do is listen and he can hear gunfire in the woods. He can see the way the crumbs fell down on the ground whenever his sister reached for the stale bread she kept in her coat pockets, ready should she happen to discover some homeless or injured creature while walking in the woods. This is what Richard thought when she wrote to tell him she had married Hollis. Only this time the creature shed chosen to care for was much more dangerous than an opossum or a crow or a fox.

When the kit was nearly full grown, Belinda let it into the woods. But it kept coming back. Youd walk out the door, and there it would be. Or maybe it wasnt a fox at all. Richard places his coffee cup on the table and pets Sisters head. Maybe it was one of those dreadful red dogs people say were bred from foxes.

There are still some of those at Guardian Farm, Gwen says.

Yes. Richard leans his head back against the soft fabric of the easy chair. He thinks this type of stuff is called chintz, but he doesnt know for sure. Im not surprised. There were always dogs hanging around, begging. My sister always set out food for them. She was much too kindhearted.

Richard has only begun to realize how tired he is, in spite of the coffee. He has a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, which makes him think he should call Ken Helm and go back to the airport right now, but he doesnt. Instead, he falls asleep right there, in the chair. Gwen covers him with a blanket Judith Dale bought on a trip to Ireland taken with the Friends of the Library one summer. It pains Gwen to see her father sleeping in a chair, but what can she do? Shake him to consciousness? Tell him to flee? Dont hurt yourself, is what you say to a child, not a parent, and a man like Richard Cooper is not prone to take other peoples advice, not once hes made up his mind.

Theres a draft in the living room, and Sister curls up beside Richards feet. On the mantel, the old clock Marchs father bought in Boston keeps time. The sleet continues until the roads are slick with ice and fallen leaves. Its so bad that by the time the first pale light of morning begins to break through the clouds, March has to inch along on the back road in the old Toyota. She is staying with Hollis later and later; this time, as she was leaving, he pulled her back to him. Susie thinks hes so evil, but he was concerned about March driving in such bad weather. People think they know him, but they dont. They dont know that he cries in his sleep, or that he needs to be comforted from the worst of his dreams, over and over again.

When March does finally get home, she has to carefully make her way up the frozen path, and hold on to the railing so as not to slip and break her neck on her way to the front door. Shes not taken a coat. Shes so hot these days; shes burning up. All shes wearing are jeans and a borrowed wool sweater of Holliss. She hasnt bothered with underwear either; shes much too overheated for even the flimsiest silk. Inside, the house feels stuffy and close; theres the scent of coffee and of wet dog. Theres something else too, a faint odor of regret which is sifting over the floorboards and the rugs.

As soon as she walks into the room, she sees that the man shes spent the last eighteen years with has come for her, and he appears exhausted by the effort. Richard looks so uncomfortable, folded up in that chair, in his best suit, which is now rumpled. The dog rouses and shakes itself from sleep, but Richard doesnt hear the clink of its collar. He doesnt hear March come closer, and crouch beside him. Hes dreaming about her though, and in his dream she is surrounded by falling leaves, each one a brilliant yellow, as if fashioned from pure gold.

Richard doesnt wake until March takes his hand. As soon as he opens his eyes and looks at her face, he knows its over. She pities him, thats what he sees, and pity is not what he wants.

I dont suppose youd like to fly to San Francisco with me on Sunday? Richard laughs. He was supposed to keep this idea to himself until theyd spoken at length, but obviously he cant do that.

In spite of herself, March laughs. He never did like small talk.

Should I take that as a yes? Richard asks.

Its not that I dont love you, March says.

Richard cannot help but wonder how many times this phrase has been spoken, and how many people whove recited these words have believed they were being kind. What makes a person love another? Thats what Richard wonders, as March tells him that shell be staying on, and that she never meant to hurt him. Are Marchs dark eyes the element that always gets to him? Is it the way her beautiful mouth twists to one side when she smiles?

Richard goes upstairs to grab a few hours of sleep in Marchs bed. When he wakes, the bright sunshine which blasts through the ice-covered windows is blinding. He gets his suit, having draped his trousers and jacket over a chair so he will appear presentable when he goes to the cemetery. He wants to look as though nothing is wrong when he goes downstairs and kisses his daughter good morning, when he speaks cordially to March and asks if he can use the Toyota in her driveway to run his errands. March has been crying; her face is all puffy and her eyes are red. Looking at her, knowing that shes been with Hollis and will continue to be with him, brings Richard immense sadness.

What would another man do? Carry her off, make demands, beat her until she gave in to him, stand there and cry? Richard Cooper is the same man he was before this happened to him. Hes the man who leaves a check on the kitchen counter because he worries that his wife will run out of cash. Hes the man who brings flowers to the graves of his loved ones, and says a silent prayer for each one. Its the same Richard Cooper who trades stories with Jimmy Parrish about racehorses whove been dead a quarter of a century or more over lunch at the Lyon Cafe, who calls for another round of beers and some chili-cheese fries, then makes certain he grabs the check before Jimmy can reach into his pocket for his own leather wallet. Hes the man who drives to Guardian Farm late in the day and parks in the driveway where he has a good view of the house where he grew up, despite the uncertain November light.

When he sees Hollis slam through the front door, on his way to collect bills and circulars from a mailbox set out where Richards mothers roses used to grow, Richard doesnt step on the gas and careen through the fence to run his rival down. Instead, he watches as some Canada geese pass by, high overhead. In the pastures there are still a few red dragonflies, the kind Richard used to collect when he was a boy. He used to keep them in a jelly jar, until he realized that whenever he caught one he damaged its wings, which marked it for death. Thats what he thinks about now as he watches Hollis, who has lifted one hand to shade his eyes against the sun as he tries to figure out whos there, parked in Marchs car. By the time Hollis does understand who it is in his driveway, Richard will have already made a U-turn. Theres no point in staying any longer. Hell leave a note for Gwen if shes not at the house when he stops to drop off this car, then call Ken Helm for a ride. He intends to trade in his tickets for a plane that leaves tonight. Hed just as soon sleep somewhere in midair, high above Chicago or soaring over the Rockies, as he would in someones easy chair.

Gwen is in the barn when the Toyota makes that U-turn. She knows that her father will be gone before she gets back to Fox Hill. Standing there. watching him, she feels like crying. Maybe she should have insisted on going on his errands with him; maybe she should have tried to talk her mother into leaving. Gwen now considers herself to be a guilty party. She didnt say, I want to go back with you. She didnt take his side. Difficult as it is to admit, she wants to be here, saddling Tarot, meeting Hank later in the day at the library, wheres hes working on his senior thesis. Traitor that she is, she doesnt run after her father. She lets Tarot eat sugar from her hand while waiting for Hollis to go back inside the house. Thats one thing shell do to honor her father-shell avoid Hollis at all costs. When Hollis has finally slammed the door shut behind him, Gwen leads the horse out of the barn. Shed planned to walk him to the sunniest pasture, where the ice has already melted, but seeing her father makes her want to go miles away.

The footing is too slippery for riding, but Gwen doesnt care. Shes completely unschooled and does everything wrong, but it doesnt matter with a horse like Tarot. He makes his way over the ice, then onto the packed dirt in the driveway. Gwen feels sure enough of him to give him his head, and let him take charge of matters. When he goes into the woods, right before the devils corner, Gwen doesnt protest. Tarot walks quickly over brambles and fallen leaves; when they pass under low branches, Gwen ducks and rests her face against his neck. She can feel his blood, just beneath his skin; when he breathes, the air fills with smoke. Hes like a dragon, ancient and fearless. He doesnt spook at anything, not when pheasants fly out of the bushes, not when they come upon a deer, drinking from an icy stream.

Gwen can only guess what they must have done to this horse to make him mean enough to kill two men. He was a machine, a winning machine. Hay in, shit out, and run like hell. Run so fast they can never catch you. She has seen marks in Tarots flesh. Hes been beaten, long ago, in another life that will always be a mystery. History is personal, Gwen understands that now. All you are seeing is whats before you, the rest is guesswork. Still, she believes that he was beaten with a chain, at least once. Theres a circular indentation on his flank, and each time she runs her hand over that wound, Tarot throws his head back in a move so serious, so potentially killing, that Gwens respect for him is renewed.

Now, as he jumps a fallen tree, Gwen holds on for dear life. She tells herself riding Tarot isnt any more dangerous than being on the back of Josh Krausss out-of-control Honda roaring down the El Camino at midnight. All the same, she closes her eyes when they come to the thickest part of the woods, and when she opens them again, the Marshes are before her, all gold and brown. Herons rise from the grass. Ice covers the inlets. Theyre trotting through frozen mud now, over hermit crabs and minnows. Maybe its the old apple tree which calls to the horse, or maybe its the wild berries; either way, Tarot has come to graze in the Cowards front yard.

Not here, Gwen tells the horse. Lets go.

When Tarot refuses to move, Gwen kicks him, but she hasnt the heart to do anything more than tap, and Tarot doesnt even notice her boots against his flanks. Hes come upon a pile of frozen apples, and Gwen had better settle down, since hes not leaving anytime soon.

The Coward sees the girl as she slips off the horse, and for a moment, he thinks its Belinda out there, who used to ride this same horse when she came to visit him. Other people brought food and clothes-Judith Dale, of course, and Louise Justice occasionally-but Belinda brought him what he truly yearned for. Photographs of his son. School papers. Spelling tests. Paintings of boats and of starry nights. The first tooth his boy lost, which the Coward still keeps in a saltshaker beneath his bed. Locks of pale hair, retrieved from the kitchen floor after a haircut.

Belinda used to sit on his porch and cry sometimes; once, she spent the night, curled up on a blanket on his floor. She had hair the color of roses, and on the night when she stayed with him her lip was split open; it hurt too much for her to drink the water the Coward offered her. Although he knows that Belinda died years ago, she seems to have reappeared beneath his apple tree. The Coward pulls on his boots and hurries outside. Hes ready to greet Belinda with a hug, but when she turns around he sees its only the girl who was here before, the one who left him the old compass he was given on his twelfth birthday, when there was still hope for him.

Im not trespassing, Gwen says quickly. Maybe shes been crying about her father and maybe she hasnt been. This bright sunlight could bring tears to anyones eyes. Its this horse. He loves apples.

All right, the Coward says in a surprisingly mild voice. Now he sees, there are indeed tears on this girls cheeks. Let him eat.

The Coward sits on the rickety front steps of his porch. The ice makes everything in the distance shine like diamonds. The Coward blinks in the light. He has always believed that if vodka looked like anything, it would look like ice. Gin, on the other hand, was pure, clean snow.

You dont know me. the girl says.

She has come to sit beside him on the steps, which cannot be a pleasant experience, the Coward is certain, since he cant remember the last time he bathed. But in fact, his odor is no more offensive than marsh grass or old apples, slightly vinegary.

Im Gwen, the girl says. My father is Richard Cooper. My mother is March.

The Coward appraises her. His niece, if what shes saying is true. Well, she does have the Cooper nose, straight and narrow, and those pale blue eyes.

I dont take after my mother, if thats what youre thinking. But youre my uncle all the same.

For all the good it will do you, the Coward says.

Gwen laughs. Screwed-up family.

You have no idea, the Coward tells her.

Gwen rests her chin on her hand and watches Tarot munch apples. Its actually beautiful out here, if you dont mind the isolation. If loneliness isnt a factor. Before she can say another word, the Coward has risen from the steps and is already heading for his house. He cant take too much of people. Five minutes is just about tops.

Where are you going? Gwen asks.

He doesnt want to think about his family. Thats sorrow, plain and simple, and besides, hes got better things to do.

Im going inside, he tells the girl.

To drink? The horse has come near, so Gwen stands and reaches for the reins. Thats what you do, right? Its like your occupation or something, isnt it? Being a drunk?

Drunkard, the Coward corrects.

He squints against the glare of the diamonds in the Marshes. If he wants to, he can go inside and pretend theres no one beneath his apple tree.

In case youre interested, your son doesnt drink at all. He wont even have a beer. Even if everyone else is completely wasted, he wont touch the stuff.

The Coward has reached his front door, but he doesnt go inside.

Youd be proud of him, Gwen says.

Although the Cowards back is toward her, she knows hes listening.

If you ever took the trouble to know him.

When the Coward turns to face this girl, she has her hands on her hips. Clearly, shes not the sort to back down from things. If she loves you, shell fight for you, and thats what she appears to be doing right now.

What makes you think I have a choice on that topic? The Cowards voice sounds harsh.

Because you do, Gwen says. You just do.

The Coward watches as she leads the horse out of his yard, around the garden gate, then into the Marshes, where the ice has begun to melt in the thin afternoon sunlight. Theres something hot in the center of the Cowards chest, so he sits back down on his porch. The floorboards are loose; beneath them is a den of raccoons. When the Coward walks across these marshes, to Route 22, and the liquor store beyond, that is his choice. In all these years, he has not stopped to think other choices were his to make as well.

Do what you want, do what you will, do what you have to, do what you think you cannot.

He feels sick inside. If hes having a stroke, then its a suitable penance for all the ruin hes brought upon his tired body. If its a broken heart, he deserves that too. Tonight will be so chilly hell have to burn extra wood in his old stove, and the smoke will billow out into the Marshes like a flock of blackbirds. Hell drink ice and snow, hell drink himself senseless, and hell be surprised to discover that when he wakes the next day, on his hard, cold floor, hell still hear that girls words ringing in his ears.


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