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18

This year, the Harvest Fair, which is always set out in the basement of Town Hall, is more crowded than usual, and Marchs booth-used clothing, the one she promised Regina Gordon she would run-has done a booming business-good news for the childrens section of the library, to which all proceeds will be donated.

I never thought Id see you here, Susanna Justice says when she comes to look through a pile of old vests. She pulls out a double-breasted houndstooth which would look great with her brown corduroy slacks.

Neither did I. March laughs. Im not the type.

Theyve been tentative with each other since March moved in with Hollis. Susie has taken everyones advice and kept her mouth shut, but no one bothered to tell her that once she did, she wouldnt have much to say.

Well, Susie says.

Well. March grins. You look great.

Actually, its March who looks beautiful. Shes wearing old painters pants and a heavy red sweater she paid three dollars for this morning, bought from her very own booth. In Susies estimation, March has lost weight. The angles of her face are more prominent. Her dark eyes more intense. March smiles when she catches Susie staring, and thats when Susie thinks, Its love thats done this to her.

My mother is still counting on you for Thanksgiving, Susie says.

Thats so sweet of her, but I have Hollis to think about. He hates Thanksgiving. He thinks turkeys inedible.

Bring him anyway. Susie actually manages to sound cheerful. He can have a bologna sandwich.

Just because shes stopped pestering March doesnt mean Susie has given up her research concerning Hollis. She has been down to Juvenile Hall in Boston, but even with some strings pulled by a friend of Eds on the force, she found nothing. Its as if Hollis never existed, or maybe someone simply wiped the slate clean, Henry Murray probably, with his ridiculously big heart and his faith in humankind. Still, Susie continues to feel if she only looks hard enough, shell turn up hard evidence against Hollis, if not enough to send March running for cover, then at least enough to make her think twice.

Even if Hollis doesnt want to favor us with his company, you can still come to dinner with Gwen and Hank.

Easy for you to say. March laughs.

Extremely easy. Susie is not laughing. Nobodys telling me what to do.

Its not what you think, March says. Hes not like that. You know me, Susie. Do you think Id let someone boss me around? At my age?

Okay. I hope Im wrong.

When Susie hugs March she notices the scent of lavender, a sad odor in Susies opinion, one that marks the past and all things best forgotten. Most likely, there were traces of lavender cologne on the secondhand sweater March bought for herself, and the fragrance now clings to its new owner. In the end, what a friend wants for herself, thats what you have to want for her as well. Good fortune in all things, thats what Susie wishes for March, that and no mistake so terrible it cannot be rectified.

Susie moves on to used books. Just in time, March cant help but think; Hollis is approaching with two cups of hot coffee. You just have to know how to handle him, thats the piece Susie doesnt understand.

Good old Susie-Q, Hollis says when he comes to Marchs booth and spies Susanna Justice nearby.

There are dozens of stands and far too many customers, at least to Holliss mind. Hes never been to a Harvest Fair, and he doesnt plan to come again. Hes only here to keep an eye on March, probably a good thing since some guy is taking an awfully long time checking out an ill-fitting sports coat, soliciting Marchs fashion advice. Its Bud Horace, Hollis recognizes him now, the dogcatcher. Well, Buds spending a little too long talking to March, and Hollis doesnt like that look on his face.

Lets go, Hollis says to March when Bud finally pays for his damned sports coat and leaves.

I think Im committed to another two hours. March looks over her shoulder for Regina Gordon, who has everyones schedule written down on a legal pad, but before March can spy Regina, Hollis has already gone over to speak to Mimi Frank, who has taken the day off from the Bon Bon Salon in order to man the applesauce stand.

How about it? Can you keep an eye on the clothing? Hollis asks Mimi. Personally, I think you have the energy to take care of two stands. I wouldnt say that to many people.

Mimi smiles up at Hollis; everyone notices how competent she is. Honey, dont worry about it, she says.

You charmed Mimi Frank, March says when Hollis helps her on with her coat. Thats hard to believe.

Lets get out of here, Hollis says.

Were gone. March is hoping for humor as they walk out of Town Hall, but somehow her words fall flat.

They dont have much to say to each other as they head for Holliss truck; anyway, it would be hard to have a decent conversation with the wind blowing the way it is. When they reach the statue of the Founder, March pats his knee for luck. She has the oddest feeling that she dare not pass by the statue without giving in to this silly, superstitious act, as if on this blustery day she was, indeed, in desperate need of luck.

Should we go to the Bluebird for lunch? March asks Hollis.

And see more of these idiot townsfolk? I dont think my stomach could take it.

After theyve gotten into the truck, Hollis pulls her close and holds his face against hers and whispers about why he wants to be alone with her, how he wants to take her up to bed and show her how much he loves her, and March feels less jittery about the way hes been acting lately. But then Hollis starts talking about Bud Horace, and how Bud had better keep his dick in his pants. Did Hollis always speak this way? March truly cant remember. Did he always get angry so fast?

Theyre all pathetic, thats what hes saying now, with their moronic fund-raisers and their false cheer. He could buy them and sell them, he could do it in seconds flat; he could have them down on their knees and begging, each and every one, the members of the town council and shopkeepers alike, if he held out a big enough check. And where do they get off looking at him, looking at March? Where does that fucking Bud Horace think hes going to go with his used sports coat and his goddamned smile?

Trust me, March says to Hollis when they stop for a red light. I dont even know what Bud Horace looks like. Why should I? Im only interested in you.

She kisses him then, hard and deep, but she has the nagging feeling that shes faking something. And worse-that shed better. Hes always been jealous, she knows that. Well, so has she. If he doesnt want other men looking at her, so what? Its because he loves her, thats all. Its because he cares.

She needs to concentrate less on the what-ifs and more on the here and nows. She needs to take pleasure in going day by day. Since theyve begun living together, they dont go out very much, or at least March doesnt. She has set up a work space on the third floor, in an old guest bedroom, and shes begun to work on holiday presents: beautiful silver pendants, one for Susie and another for Gwen, luminous little things to slip onto silver chains, formed into the shape of crescent moons. March works when Hollis goes off in the mornings, to check his properties, and when hes at meetings in the evenings. She doesnt even realize how often shes alone until shes run out of silver, and has to ask Hollis to pick up more on his next trip into Boston.

But Holliss next trip to the city falls on a Sunday, so all the shops will be closed, and March wont be able to get her silver after all. Its an emergency meeting with his lawyer, something about a hurricane and his property in Florida. March is still in bed and Hollis is in the shower on the morning hes to go to Boston, when the phone rings. Its early, and again March feels anxious-shes afraid the caller will be Holliss lawyer, with bad news that will set him off. Or worse, that Richard will finally phone here. But when March picks up the receiver its only Ken Helm, calling to let her know that the big chestnut tree over on the hill has blight.

I cant promise we can save it, Ken tells her, but we can try.

As they speak, March can hear Kens wife and kids in the background. Ken will be lucky to have enough in the bank to pay his mortgage this month, and yet here he is, worrying about a chestnut tree on a Sunday morning.

March rolls over onto her stomach. Its warm under the satin quilt. Shes only wearing panties, and doesnt want to get out of bed, especially not to go look at a tree, but Ken seems so serious when he speaks about the effects of blight.

All right, March finally agrees. Ill meet you there at ten. Right after Hollis leaves.

When March reaches to replace the phone onto the night table she sees that Hollis has been watching her. He has a towel around his waist and his wet hair is plastered to his head and the way hes staring at her makes her feel guilty, about what, however, shes not certain.

Hey. March smiles. Come back to bed.

He walks toward her without a word; hes amazingly quick, or maybe it only seems that way, but before March knows it, hes torn the blue quilt off and has grabbed her by her wrists, wrenching her to her feet.

Who the hell was that? is what she thinks hes shouting.

Wait a second, March says.

Hes really hurting her; any more pressure would probably snap her wrist bones.

Hollis! she says.

Who was that on the phone? He pulls her over to the dressing table, then shoves her against the mirror. The glass is icy cold against Marchs bare skin. Who were you going to meet?

It was Ken.

Dont fuck with me, March. His voice sounds completely empty.

Im not. Her heart is beating much too fast, as if she were scared of him.

I mean it.

So do I. It was Ken Helm on the phone. Thank God it was only Ken, thats what shes thinking. That is the one and only thought she can manage. That old tree on Fox Hill is dying and he wants me to meet him to okay some work.

Hollis looks at her closely. He may not believe her yet.

Thats not your property. Why would he ask for your okay?

He probably thought it was too trivial to bother you with. March can feel herself sweet-talking Hollis. Thats what shes doing, and it turns out shes good at it. Who would have guessed? Shes not only a good liar, she is better than average at flattery. Already, Hollis is easing up on her wrists and shes no longer pushed against the mirror. She doesnt want to think about the way glass breaks, a jagged, unreliable shattering, so that you never can tell who will get hurt. Its a stupid tree. Thats all. He wouldnt have thought youd be interested.

Hollis is still looking at her, but the situation no longer seems as dangerous. Maybe it never was, March thinks. It probably never was. He raises her wrists to his mouth, kissing first one, then the other, right at the most delicate spot, where the veins crisscross.

I thought you went crazy on me, March says, relieved.

It turns out that her legs are shaking. They probably have been all along, but she doesnt realize this fact until he draws her closer to the edge of the dressing table. This is where Annabeth Cooper used to carefully apply her lipstick and rouge; she had three hairbrushes, all made of tortoiseshell, all imported from France.

Hollis pulls March nearer still, close enough so he can ease off her panties and fuck her right there, without saying a word, without asking.

Listen, he tells her when hes done, tell Ken Helm to do whatever he wants. I dont mind paying to save that tree.

When Hollis leaves, March stands at the bedroom window. He didnt hit her, thats all she knows. He wouldnt do that to her. She watches Hollis get into his truck and drive away. She knows what people say about Belinda, but she doesnt care. Hollis never loved Belinda, and she was a fool to marry him. This is what no one has ever understood, including Susie: He is different with March, and when all is said and done, he didnt mean to hurt her. Hed never do that.

Shell think about the yard at Fox Hill, thats what shell do. Shell think about the nights when she and Hollis sat out there, searching for privacy and for stars. Whose tree is it, March now wonders, that chestnut so old there isnt another like it in the entire county? Does it belong to the man who owns the land where it grows, or the woman who looked into its branches every day for three years, or the person who can save it from blight? Does it belong to those doves who come back year after year to nest, or to the sky above, or to the earth in which its roots are settled?

March showers for a long time, hoping to get rid of those cold, blue marks Hollis left on her skin where he grabbed her and held on too tightly. When she faces the mirror she notices the white strands in her hair. She should go into town to the Bon Bon and have it colored, or buy a package of dye at the pharmacy, but shes simply in no mood for that. Instead, she pulls her hair back into an elastic band; she gets dressed in an old thermal undershirt of Holliss and a pair of jeans, then pulls on her boots. What will happen to those foolish doves if the tree has to be chopped down? They should have been chased away in October; March should have shaken a broom at them until they were forced to flee from their own bad judgment.

When shes dressed, March makes tea and toast with butter, but shes really not hungry. The way he twisted her wrists hurt, and the way he fucked her hurt as well, but shes not going to think about that. Nothing happened, after all. Not really. Its just that some mornings you want breakfast, and some you dont. When Hank comes downstairs, still half asleep and uncomfortable in Marchs presence, she suggests he have her toast. As she washes up the few dishes in the sink, March can look through the window to see Gwen in a nearby pasture, exercising that old racehorse. From this distance they look so small, horse and girl both, like toys made of tin.

Are you okay? Hank asks when he brings his dishes to the sink. He insists on washing his own plate and coffee cup.

I have to go over to Fox Hill and meet Ken Helm, and I guess I dont feel like it.

Hank offers to drive her over. Hes had his license for ages, he explains, and he never gets to drive because Hollis doesnt allow him use of the truck. Hank has been saving every cent he manages to get hold of for a car of his own, although whatever he could afford wouldnt even be half as good as Marchs beat-up Toyota. As they leave the house, March tosses Hank the keys; then she grabs two letters she plans to leave for the letter carrier to pick up when he makes his delivery. One envelope is addressed to a jewelry shop on Newbury Street and the other to a craft store in Cambridge. March sent both shops photos of her bracelets, and neither has responded, so shes giving it one more try, suggesting to both that she display some of her pieces on a commission basis. At this point, March is seriously broke. If she wanted to buy a package of hair dye, shed have to put it on Holliss tab at the pharmacy. Last week she had to ask Hollis for ten dollars so she could give Gwen her weekly lunch money, and although he was more than generous, she hates to be one of those people who cant pull their own weight.

Do you mind dumping these in the mailbox for me? she asks Hank. Ill let Gwen know were going. As Hank heads for the mailbox, March walks toward the pasture, waving. We have to go up to Fox Hill to look at a sick tree, she calls.

Gwen looks up and blinks. She sees Hank on his way from the mailbox to the Toyota. We? Shes so used to her mothers recent detachment, her interest only in Hollis, that Gwen is too startled to do anything more than nod.

Well be back before you know it.

Hank has started the Toyota and now drives over to pick up March. That threw her for a loop. March laughs when she gets in. You and me together. March notices that Hank is too tall for the Toyota and has to scrunch down in his seat. He looks so serious and so young that March feels moved. Hes shy and uncomfortable about making conversation and he hasnt had much practice driving. When he least expects it, he has to swerve to avoid hitting a rabbit, and they nearly barrel right into a stone fence.

Sorry, Hank tells March.

Its all right. March says. He looks amazingly like Alan, had Alan been sweet-tempered. Those rabbits think they own the place.

Hank nods. Its awkward being with March, and hes relieved when they reach the house on Fox Hill to find that Ken Helm is already there. These woods were once filled with chestnut trees, but in forty years the species has been all but destroyed, and now it seems this old specimen will meet a similar fate.

Drastic measures, Ken says grimly as they join him to study the tree. Thats what we need.

Hell cut off most of the limbs in the hopes of salvaging the trunk, even though hes doubtful that the tree can be saved. March tells him to go ahead and do as he sees fit, still, she worries about the doves who are peering down at them from their nest.

Theyre going to have to move, Ken tells March as he goes to get his saw and ladder from his truck.

I want to make sure nothing happens to them, March calls.

Ill do my best, Ken says. I cant do more.

Hank has been leaning against a small maple tree, looking at the empty house. He has almost no memory of ever living here, except for the day of the fire. He remembers more than most people would guess; that the fire seemed liquid, for instance, that it looked so pretty he wanted to reach out and touch the flames, but his mother wouldnt let him. She told him no.

Lets go inside and see how the place looks, March suggests.

I dont think so, Hank says.

Oh, come on. Lets take a peek.

March goes on ahead, and Hank finds himself following. The house hasnt been unoccupied that long, but the pipes have been drained, and its colder inside than it is out. Aside from a few big pieces of furniture-the dining room table, the couch-its empty. They can hear an echo as they walk through the rooms, like the past coming right back at them. Hank goes to the doorway into the kitchen; he knows exactly what hes looking for. To the right of the frame, where the wallpaper is worn, he can see charred wood. He found this one day when he was visiting Mrs. Dale, and after that he always felt he had to revisit the spot, as though paying his respects.

Ill be outside, he calls to March.

That was a stupid suggestion of mine, March says later when she comes out to the porch. You must be upset when you come here. You must think of your mother.

Im fine. Something has caught in Hanks throat, and he coughs. But if its all right with you, I think Ill stay here for a while and help Mr. Helm.

Sure, March says, and she pats his shoulder when she walks by.

She feels sorry for him, Hank saw it in her face. Well, pity is meaningless, thats what Hanks been taught. Its what you do that counts, Hollis has always said, and in Hanks experience, Hollis is right. He remembers perfectly well the day Hollis came for him. They were living down in the Marshes and it was freezing cold; there was ice in Hanks hair. His father had passed out and the fire in the coal stove had died; there was nothing but embers. He remembers how light spilled into the room when Hollis opened the door. Hanks father was on the floor, and Hollis rolled Alans limp body over with his foot, then bent down to peer into his face. Hank was not yet five, but he already knew it did no good to complain; hunger and cold were the facts of his life, so he didnt say a word. He remembers, though, the look on Holliss face, the absolute certainty there. How curious a man of conviction had seemed to Hank, how rare.

Get what you want to take with you, Hollis had said. Hurry up.

Because of Holliss tone, because of the way he was standing there-and how tall he seemed and how completely confident-Hank never thought to question him. He got the stuffed bear the ladies from the library had given him on Christmas, and his wool sweater, and he didnt look back when Hollis closed the door. But now, for the first time, Hank has questions; its what hes been instructed to do thats the problem. Hes supposed to keep an eye on March: If she goes somewhere, hes to tag along, as he did today. If he sees her setting out mail for the postman, hes to grab it and hand it over to Hollis. When he raised the issue of Marchs privacy with Hollis, Hollis laughed out loud.

You really think theres such a thing as privacy? Hollis had said. Thats just some bullshit they hand out to keep people in line. If you love someone, you do what you have to. You dont think about what other people might say.

Well, Hank has done as Hollis asked, he has Marchs letters in his jacket pocket right now, secured when she went to say goodbye to Gwen. Hes done what hes supposed to do, and when he hands the letters over Hollis will pat him on the back. Usually thats enough for Hank-just the tiniest bit of appreciation, a nod to a job well done. But this time is different. What Hank has done in stealing Marchs letters is wrong, thats the way he sees it. And the most awful thing is, once hes begun to question Holliss motives on this, he has other questions as well, especially concerning Belinda.

She was driving me crazy, Hollis used to explain, whenever he and Belinda would fight. Some people have to be taught a lesson, hed tell Hank. Youll understand when youre older, when youve had to settle for what you never wanted in the first place.

Now, when Hank thinks about the way Belinda looked after theyd had a fight, he feels sick. He thinks about the sounds he thought hed only dreamed when he first came to live with them. Frankly, he doesnt like the conclusions hes reached.

March calls out a goodbye to Ken and drives off, leaving Hank to help. Mostly, Ken needs the branches he cuts down to be sawed into pieces, then thrown into the bed of his truck, a job Hank is glad to do, since the work is almost hard enough to keep him from thinking.

Good job, kid, Ken Helm says when theyre done for the day. Ken will be back in the morning, to finish the job. I guess I have to give you a percentage after I bill Hollis. Maybe I should charge him double.

Hank laughs. Its okay. All the same, hes grateful when Ken Helm slips him a twenty. When all the dead wood has been toted away, they both shield their eyes and look upward.

Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, but store them in heaven, where neither moth nor woodworms destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.

That sounds like good advice, Hank says.

It is. Ken nods. Matthew 6:19. I didnt want to say anything to March, but that nest is going to have to go.

I figured.

Some people dont like to hear the truth.

And, Hank thinks as he watches Ken drive off, some people dont like to tell it. Hank, for instance, hasnt told anyone about the old man who has taken to following him. He didnt even notice at first, but for the past week or two hes felt someone watching him. He heard noises when he brought old Geronimo and Coops ornery pony out to the pasture. A branch breaking. An intake of breath. He has taken to looking over his shoulder, even when he and Gwen are walking home from school on the deserted High Road. Recently, hed begun to see bits and pieces of the old man. A footprint in an icy field. A thread snagged on some witch hazel.

Hank tried to train his eyes to look beyond what he saw. A twisted oak had hands. A stack of hay wore worn leather boots. Then. one day, Hank looked behind him on the road and there was the old man, thin as a stick, pale as winter, with an unkempt beard and clothes far too big for his frame. Hank felt panic rise in his throat. He had the urge to grab the old man or to run away, but he did neither. He kept walking, and before long he realized it was his father who was following him. He knew because the old man would not cross onto Holliss property; instead he disappeared into the Marshes, without a sound.

What would be the point of having a father now? Hanks all but grown, hes managed without; hed be embarrassed to be claimed by a pathetic drunk who doesnt seem to know when his boots are on the wrong feet. It makes no sense; not now. Its Hollis who raised him, Hollis to whom he owes his allegiance. All the same, Hank finds himself thinking of his father, the way he used to examine a bottle of gin before he began to drink, as if there was some promise deep inside. Well, there are no promises, that was the problem; not in drink and not in life, not now and not ever.

The door to the empty house is rattling as the wind picks up; March must have forgotten the latch. Hank is on his way to check when he sees the old man. He just wont stop. Hes everywhere.

What do you want? Hank shouts.

The Coward is wearing a thick black coat Louise Justice brought him one year when the Judge grew tired of it.

Stop following me around. Hank can feel his face flush with anger. He doesnt owe this guy anything, after all, not even courtesy.

The Coward is tall, like Hank, but he weighs perhaps a hundred and twenty pounds. He wants to say something, but instead he stands there, silent, his hands in his pockets.

I want you to cut it out. Hanks actually sweating. Crazy, but hes nervous being alone with his own father, not that he thinks of him that way. Okay? Do you understand what Im saying?

Hank wishes he could be nastier, but its not in his nature. He could, if he wanted, blow this old man over with one breath. He could break him in two.

Do you understand? Hank asks, and for some reason he feels a burning behind his eyes, as though he might cry.

The Coward finds his son to be so beautiful it seems inconceivable that they could be the same species. Yet they are; theyre flesh and blood. What he would not give to embrace this boy, to be a father for a minute or a day. But they are at a standstill, with nowhere to go. Here is the most difficult aspect of forgiveness: You have to ask in order to receive it. This, the Coward cannot do. He can stand there, on this cold November day, but he cannot ask for what he needs. And so it is his fate to wait in silence for another day, done in by his own fear, once again.

By the time Hank is done latching the door, the Coward has disappeared back into the woods. Since the hour when Hollis came for him, Hank has never looked back. But hes looking back now, and when he does he sees that the man on the floor they stepped over when they left that shack was consumed with grief, sick with alcohol. Hank cant help himself, he pities his father. He almost wishes he hadnt chased him off. Oh, he knows Hollis would consider this a weakness in him. Pity is for women, and babies, and fools. Your father got what he deserved, thats what Hollis would say.

No one gets what he deserves, thats what Hank is thinking now. Things happen, and sometimes it all goes wrong. An entire life can become a dead end. Hank considers this for a very long time, and by the time hes done thinking, hes no longer sure that Hollis has all the answers. Before he leaves, Hank goes to the garden shed for the ladder he always used for cleaning out Mrs. Dales gutters. Its a heavy old ladder, but reliable and strong. He leans it against the chestnut tree and climbs up carefully. By tomorrow, Ken Helm will finish lopping off most of the branches, in the hopes that the blight will be stopped and new growth will begin in the spring.

For as long as he can remember, Hank has done as hes been told; a good boy, dedicated as a dog, thankful for scraps. A fact from Hollis was a fact indeed; no questions asked, and none need be. Now hes wondering if hes been misled, and if judgment is not such a simple thing. If hes a good boy, why did he steal the letters March meant to send? Why, on that day when Hollis came for him, did he not kneel down beside his father and kiss him goodbye, the very least any son could do?

As he goes higher on the old ladder, Hank is unsure of what he believes, but he does know one thing-everyone deserves at least this: fresh air, clear skies, the sight of the earth from the vantage point of an old tree. His hands tremble when he takes the nest, but hes careful as he comes back down the ladder. He places the nest on the ground while he carries the ladder over to a tall crab apple tree he helped Mrs. Dale plant a few years back. It was one of her favorites, an early bloomer with huge white flowers. Hank brings the ladder over, then grabs the nest, climbs up, and positions the nest into place. When hes back on the ground, Hank claps his hands together to clean off the dirt. He may not have accomplished much, but at least thats done. March wont have to worry about the doves, although, in Hanks opinion, she had better start to worry about herself instead.


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