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Tonight, the hay in the fields is already brittle with frost, especially to the west of Fox Hill, where the pastures shine like stars. In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, gray with a purple edge. At this time of year, these woods are best avoided, or so the local boys say. Even the bravest among them wouldnt dare stray from the High Road after soccer practice at Fire-mens Field, and those who are old enough to stand beside the murky waters of Olive Tree Lake and pry kisses from their girlfriends still walk home quickly. If the truth be told, some of them run. A person could get lost up here. After enough wrong turns he might find himself in the Marshes, and once he was there, a man could wander forever among the minnows and the reeds, his soul struggling to find its way long after his bones had been discovered and buried on the crest of the hill, where wild blueberries grow.

People from out of town might be tempted to laugh at boys who believed in such things; they might go so far as to call them fools. And yet there are grown men who have lived in Jenkintown all their lives, and are afraid of very little in this world, who will not cross the hill after dark. Even the firefighters down at the station on Main Street, courageous volunteers who have twice been commended for heroism by the governor himself, are always relieved to discover that the fire bells are tolling for flames on Richdale or Seventh Street -any location thats not the hill is one worth getting to fast.

The town founder himself, Aaron Jenkins, a seventeen-year-old boy from Warwick, England, was the first to realize that some localities are accompanied by bad luck. Jenkins built his house in the Marshes in the year 1663. One October night, when the tide froze solid and refused to go back to sea. he received a message in his dreams that he must flee immediately or be trapped in the ice himself. He left what little he owned and ran over the hill, even though there was a terrible storm, with thunder just above his head and hailstones the size of apples. In his journal, exhibited in the reading room at the library, Aaron Jenkins vows that a thousand foxes followed on his heels. All the same, he didnt stop until he reached what is now the town square, where he built a new home, a neat, one-roomed house that is currently a visitors center where tourists from New York and Boston can pick up maps.

Those foxes who chased after Aaron Jenkins are all but gone now. Still, some of the older residents in the village can recall the days when there were foxes in every inch of the woods. Youd see them slipping into the henhouses, or searching for catfish out by Olive Tree Lake. Some people insist that every time a dog was abandoned, the foxes would befriend the stray, and a breed of odd reddish dogs with coarse coats came from these unions. Indeed, such dogs were once plentiful in these parts, back when farms lined Route 22 and so many orchards circled the village that on some crisp October afternoons the whole world smelled like pie.

Twenty-five years ago, there were still hundreds of foxes in the woods. They would gather and raise their voices every evening at twilight, at such a regular hour people in the village could set their watches by the sound. Then one dreadful season the hunting ban was lifted, and people went crazy; theyd shoot at anything that moved. Most folks still regret what went on; they truly do. For one thing, the rabbits in these parts are now so fearless youre likely to see them sitting on the steps to the library, right in the middle of the day. Youll catch them in your garden, helping themselves to your finest lettuce and beans. Youll spy them in the parking lot behind the hardware store, comfortable as can be on a hot afternoon, resting in the shadow left by your car. Theyre pests, theres no doubt about that, and even the most gracious ladies on the library committee find themselves setting out poison every now and then.

There are so many rabbits along the back road to Fox Hill that even cautious drivers risk running over one. This, of course, is simply one more reason to avoid the hill. March Murray, who was raised here, agrees that its best to stay away, and she has done exactly that for nineteen years. All this time she has lived in California, where the light is so lemon-colored and clear it is almost possible to forget there are other places in the world; these woods for instance, where one could easily mistake day for night on an October afternoon, where the rain falls in such drenching sheets no birds can take flight. It is exactly such a day, when the sky is the color of stone and the rain is so cold it stings the skin, that March returns home, and although coming back was not in her plans, she is definitely here of her own free will.

The simple act of returning, however, doesnt mean shes a local girl right off, that she would, for instance, still know every shopowner in town by name as she once did. In the time shes been away, March has certainly forgotten what rain can do to an unpaved road. She used to walk this way every day, but the ditches are much deeper than she remembers, and as they drive over branches tossed down by the storm, there is an awful sound, like the crunching of bones or a heart breaking. The rental car has begun to lurch; it strains all the way uphill and sputters each time they have to traverse a deep puddle.

Were going to get stuck. Marchs daughter, Gwen, announces. Always the voice of doom.

No, we wont, March insists.

Perhaps if March hadnt been so intent on proving her point, they wouldnt have. But she steps down hard on the gas, in a hurry as usual, and as soon as she does, the car shoots forward into the deepest ditch of all, where it sinks, then stalls out.

Gwen lets out a groan. They are hubcap-deep in muddy water and two miles from anywhere. I cant believe you did that, she says to her mother.

Gwen is fifteen and has recently chopped off most of her hair and dyed it black. Shes pretty anyway, in spite of all her sabotage. Her voice has a froggy quality from the packs of cigarettes she secretly smokes, a tone she puts to good use when complaining. Now well never get out of here.

March can feel her nerves frayed down to dust. Theyve been traveling since dawn, from San Francisco to Logan, then up from Boston in this rental car. Their last stop, to see to the arrangements at the funeral parlor, has just about done her in. When March gets a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror, she frowns. Worse than usual. She has always had very little appreciation for what others might consider her best features-her generous mouth, her dark eyes, her thick hair, which she has colored for years to hide the white streaks which appeared when she was little more than a girl. All March sees when she gazes at her reflection is that shes pale and drawn and nineteen years older than she was when she left.

Well get out of here, she tells her daughter. Have no fear. But when she turns the key the engine grunts, then dies.

I told you, Gwen mutters under her breath.

Without the windshield wipers switched on, its impossible to see anything. The rain sounds like music from a distant planet. March leans her head back against the car seat and closes her eyes. She doesnt have to see to know that directly to her left are the fields of Guardian Farm and the stone walls where she used to balance, arms out, ready for anything. She truly believed that she carried her own fate in the palm of her hand, as if destiny was nothing more than a green marble or a robins egg, a trinket any silly girl could scoop up and keep. She believed that all you wanted, you would eventually receive, and that fate was a force which worked with, not against you.

March tries the engine again. Come on, baby, she says. This road is not a place where she wants to be stuck. She knows the nearest neighbor too well, and his is a door she doesnt plan to knock upon. She pumps the gas and gives it her all and there it is at last: the ignition catches.

Gwen throws her arms around her mothers neck, and for now they both forget all the fighting theyve been doing, and the reasons why March insisted on dragging Gwen along instead of leaving her at home with Richard. So a mother doesnt trust a daughter? Is that a federal offense? Exhibit A: birth control pills at the bottom of Gwens backpack wedged between the Kleenex and a Snickers candy bar. Exhibit B: pot and rolling papers in her night table drawer. And C of course, the most definitive evidence of all: the dreamy look on any fifteen-year-old girls face. C for cause and effect. C for ceaseless trouble, and for cry all night, and for cool as ice to your mother no matter what or when. How could Gwen guess that March knows fifteen inside out; that she knows, for instance, whatever feels most urgent and unavoidable to you at that age can follow you forever, if you turn and run.

The sooner we get out of here. the better, Gwen informs her mother. Shes dying for a cigarette, but shell simply have to control herself. Not exactly what shes best at.

March steps on the gas, but the wheels spin them deeper and deeper into the mud. Theres no longer any hope of going forward; in fact, they wont be going anywhere at all without the help of a tow truck.

Damn it, March says.

Gwen doesnt like the way her mother sounds. She doesnt like the whole situation. Its easy to see why tourists dont usually come here, and why the maps in the visitors center are yellow with age. In these woods, autumn brings out ghosts. You may not see them or hear them, but theyre with you all the same. Youll know theyre present when your heart begins to beat too fast. Youll know when you look over your shoulder and the fact that theres no one directly behind you doesnt convince you that someones not there.

Gwen reaches over and locks her door. There arent even any streetlights out here, not for miles. If you didnt know where you were going, youd be lost. But, of course, Gwens mother knows the way. She grew up here. She must know.

Now what do we do? Gwen asks.

March takes the keys from the ignition. Now, she tells her daughter, we walk.

Through the woods? Gwens froggy voice cracks in two.

Paying her daughter no mind, March gets out of the car and finds herself shin-deep in water. Sloshing through the puddle, she goes around to the trunk for her suitcase and Gwens backpack. Shed forgotten how cold and sweet the air is in October. Shed forgotten how disturbing real darkness can be. Its impossible to see more than a foot in front of your own face and the rain is the kind that smacks at you, as if youd been a bad girl and hadnt yet been punished enough.

Im not walking through this. Gwen has gotten out, but shes huddled beside the car. The mascara she applied so carefully while she waited for her mother behind the funeral parlor is now running down her face in thick, black lines.

March isnt going to argue; she knows that doesnt work, and in all honesty, simple logic never convinced her of anything when she was Gwens age. People tried to tell her shed better behave, shed better take it slow and think twice, but she never heard a single word they said.

March grabs her suitcase, then locks up the car. You decide what you want to do. If you want to wait here, okay. Im walking to the house.

All right, Gwen allows. Fine. Ill go with you, if thats what you want.

Gwen gets her backpack. No way is she staying out here all alone. Not for a million bucks. Now she understands why her mother, as well as her father-who also grew up here, right down the road-never come back. The reason theyre finally visiting is actually pretty horrible; if Gwen allowed herself, shed have a mini-breakdown right now. Shes shivering so badly that her teeth are actually chattering. Wait till she calls Minnie Gilbert, her best friend, to tell her: My teeth were chattering like a skeleton hanging on a rope, and I couldnt even have a goddamn cigarette because there I was, right next to my mother. All for the funeral of some old woman Im not even related to.

Are you okay? March asks as they make their way down the road.

Perfect, Gwen says.

Thursday is the day of the funeral and Gwen may faint, especially if she wears her tight black dress, which is scrunched into a ball at the very bottom of her backpack. Judith Dale was the housekeeper who raised March-whose mother had died when March was little more than a baby-and although Mrs. Dale came out to visit in California once a year, Gwen can no longer picture her face. Maybe shes blocking it out, maybe she doesnt want to think about nasty things like death and getting old and being stuck in a horrible place like this with ones mother.

Do you think the casket will be open? Gwen asks. Finally, the rain is easing up.

I doubt it, March says. After all, Judith Dale was one of the most private people March has ever known. You could tell Judith anything, you could pour out your soul, and it wouldnt be until much later, perhaps even years afterwards, that youd realize shed never told you anything about herself and that you didnt even know what her favorite dessert was, let alone who she loved and what she believed in.

Now that the rain is ending, they can hear things in the woods. Mice, probably. Raccoons come to drink from the puddles.

Mom. Gwen says when something flies overhead.

Its nothing, March assures her. An owl.

Not long ago there were mountain lions roaming these woods, and black bears, who came down to the orchards to eat their fill in October. There were moose who would charge anything that moved. Even when March was a girl, the sky was still so clear children in town were often disappointed to discover they couldnt reach up and pull the stars right out of the sky.

Are we almost there? Gwen asks. Her idea of exercise, after all, is to ride on the back of someones Honda.

It is now dusk, that odd and unreliable hour when you see things which dont exist, at least not in present time. It is almost possible for March to catch sight of the ladder her brother, Alan, left beside those sugar maples. That dark shape in the woods may be the bucket Judith Dale used to collect blueberries. And there, by the stone wall, is the boy March once loved. Unless she is very much mistaken, he has begun to follow her. If she slows down, hell be beside her; if shes not careful, hell stay for good.

Why are you running? Gwen complains. Shes out of breath, trying her best to keep up with her mother.

Im not running, March insists. All the same, she gives her daughter a list of reasons to hurry: Call for the rental car to be towed. Phone Richard and let him know his worries were for nothing-theyre fine and have arrived in one piece. Contact the Judge to set up a time when they can go over Judiths estate. Call Ken Helm, whos always done odd jobs for the family, and have him check out the house to see if repairs are needed. Surely, there are squirrels in the attic, as there always were at this time of year.

Gwens good boots are caked with mud and shes freezing. I can see why you and Dad never come back here. Its disgusting.

Marchs shoulders hurt from carrying her suitcase, or maybe its just tension in her neck. This old dirt road is all uphill. Probably she should have taken Route 22 and made a left at what people in town call the devils corner. If Richard hadnt been in the middle of a term and had come with her, she might have gone that way, but shes not ready to face that piece of road with only Gwen for company. Not yet. She has told both Richard and herself that the past is the past-what happened once doesnt matter anymore-but if this were true, would she feel as though someone had just run an ice cube down her skin in a straight line?

I think I see the house, Gwen announces.

Ken Helm, the handyman, was the one who found Mrs. Dale. He knocked at the door after delivering the bricks needed to repair the chimney early on Monday evening, when the sky was the color of a velvet ribbon falling over the hills. At first hed thought no one was home, but then the wind had come up and pushed the door open, and there Judith was, in the chair by the fireplace, no longer with us. Marchs fathers old friend and partner, Bill Justice, known throughout the commonwealth as the Judge, told March all of this when he phoned the next morning. At least there were no hospital stays, no pain, no heroic measures. And yet this information brings March no comfort, especially because she believes that Bill Justice, who has been an attorney for fifty years and a judge for thirty of those years, was covering the mouthpiece of his telephone in an attempt to conceal the fact that he was crying.

Thats definitely a chimney. Gwen squints against the darkness. I see it now. And theres a gate.

On the plane ride here, March had fallen asleep, something she dreads when traveling, since shes always logy and disoriented after napping. In her dreams, she saw her father, who has been dead for nearly twenty-five years. In Marchs dream, Henry Murray was standing in the doorway to their living room, wearing the sweater that March had loved best, the brown wool one with deep pockets, where he always kept peppermint drops. He and Bill Justice were the only lawyers in the village, and although they were partners they participated in the most friendly of feuds concerning which was the more popular.

Do you want Murray or do you want Justice? Bill used to joke, and maybe he had to, since Henry Murray was everyones favorite. Children would beg for a peppermint drop each time he walked into town, and theyd follow behind, asking for a second and a third. When he died suddenly, while working late at his office, every boy and girl in the village reported smelling mint in the night air, as if something sweet had passed them right by.

Every time she thinks of her father, March experiences a sharp pain in her side. It is astounding to consider how many losses a single individual can sustain. Richard has no family left at all, except for March and Gwen, and March has little more-only her brother, Alan, from whom shes so estranged it no longer makes sense to consider him blood, which is doubly true for Alans son, a boy shes never even met.

So this is it, Gwen says.

They are standing at the gate.

March puts her suitcase down to take a good look.

I cant believe you ever lived here, Gwen says. Yikes.

In the dark, the house looks tilted and old. The section that burned down-the original kitchen and dining areas-has been rebuilt as a modest addition. March lived in this house until she was twenty-one. Hers is the window above the porch roof, the one with the black shutters which need to be set back onto their hinges. That was where she spent most of her time in those last years. Waiting at the window.

Is she surprised to find that she is thinking of Hollis now that she sees that window once again? She was only seventeen when he left, but shed already been in love with him for most of her life. That terrible winter when he went away, when the sky was always the color of ashes and the chestnut tree in the front yard was encased in ice, she began to find white strands threaded through her hair.

Tonight, in that same yard where the chestnut tree still grows, there is something jostling the quince bushes. Gwen moves as close to her mother as she can get; shes ice, inside and out.


If Gwen sounds frightened, thats because she is. This is not what she expected when she agreed to come east with her mother for the funeral. She figured shed miss a week of school; she planned to sleep until noon every day and eat nothing but candy bars and cereal, full-out enjoying the break from real life. Now, on this dark night, she feels much too far from home. Who is this woman beside her, with the long dark hair and the sad countenance? Gwen, whos brave enough-or foolhardy enough-to argue with security guards when shes picked up for shoplifting at the Palo Alto Shopping Center, is actually shaking now. What has she let herself in for? How possible would it be to turn and run for home?

Look, March says to her daughter. Its only some rabbits.

Sure enough, several brown rabbits are beneath the hedge of quince. The largest of them comes out, as if to do battle with March and Gwen, as if the entire hill belonged to a creature small enough to fit in a large sunbonnet or a cast-iron pot.

Scat, March tells the rabbit. Go on. When it doesnt move she rattles her suitcase, and off goes the rabbit, into the woods. See? she tells her daughter. No problem.

But Gwen is far from convinced about this place. Should we go in? She is whispering, her voice a raspy, breakable thing.

Well have to sleep on the porch if we dont.

They both have to laugh at this; its not too dark to see that the gutters have sloshed torrents of water over the porch. Not a place youd want to spend the night, unless you were a centipede, or some other creepy-crawly. March reaches beneath the mailbox, and there is the extra key, wedged underneath, as always.

You definitely lived here, Gwen says.

March used to see this same sky every morning; she used to take these porch steps two at a time, always in a hurry, always wanting more. From where they stand, March can see Judiths garden and instantly, she feels comforted. In spite of everything, some things remain constant. The garden is exactly as it was when March was a child. The spearmint still thrives in weedy bunches, and the scallions, with their sharp bitter scent, havent been the least affected by the chilly weather. The last of the seasons cabbages are nestled against the fence, as they always were in October, in neat, tidy rows, like well-behaved green toads.

Maybe shell regret coming back, but right now there is nowhere on earth that could feel more familiar. There, in the lower yard, March can make out the orchard, her favorite place of all. The apple trees are twisted, like little old men, their backs turned to the wind. March used to climb these trees every afternoon at this time of year, grabbing at Mc-Intoshes and Macouns, turning the stem of each apple exactly eight times as she recited the alphabet, the way girls do to learn the identity of their true love, making sure to pull the twig free only after shed reached the first letter of his name.

Alice Hoffman Here On Earth | Here On Earth | c