This year, the Harvest Fair, which is always set out in the basement of Town Hall, is more crowded than usual, and March’s booth-used clothing, the one she promised Regina Gordon she would run-has done a booming business-good news for the children’s section of the library, to which all proceeds will be donated.
“I never thought I’d 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. “I’m not the type.”
They’ve been tentative with each other since March moved in with Hollis. Susie has taken everyone’s advice and kept her mouth shut, but no one bothered to tell her that once she did, she wouldn’t have much to say.
“Well,” Susie says.
“Well.” March grins. “You look great.”
Actually, it’s March who looks beautiful. She’s wearing old painter’s pants and a heavy red sweater she paid three dollars for this morning, bought from her very own booth. In Susie’s 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 that’s when Susie thinks, It’s love that’s done this to her.
“My mother is still counting on you for Thanksgiving,” Susie says.
“That’s so sweet of her, but I have Hollis to think about. He hates Thanksgiving. He thinks turkey’s inedible.”
“Bring him anyway.” Susie actually manages to sound cheerful. “He can have a bologna sandwich.”
Just because she’s stopped pestering March doesn’t 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 Ed’s on the force, she found nothing. It’s 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, she’ll 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 doesn’t 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. “Nobody’s telling me what to do.”
“It’s not what you think,” March says. “He’s not like that. You know me, Susie. Do you think I’d let someone boss me around? At my age?”
“Okay. I hope I’m wrong.”
When Susie hugs March she notices the scent of lavender, a sad odor in Susie’s 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, that’s what you have to want for her as well. Good fortune in all things, that’s 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 can’t help but think; Hollis is approaching with two cups of hot coffee. You just have to know how to handle him, that’s the piece Susie doesn’t understand.
“Good old Susie-Q,” Hollis says when he comes to March’s booth and spies Susanna Justice nearby.
There are dozens of stands and far too many customers, at least to Hollis’s mind. He’s never been to a Harvest Fair, and he doesn’t plan to come again. He’s 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 March’s fashion advice. It’s Bud Horace, Hollis recognizes him now, the dogcatcher. Well, Bud’s spending a little too long talking to March, and Hollis doesn’t like that look on his face.
“Let’s go,” Hollis says to March when Bud finally pays for his damned sports coat and leaves.
“I think I’m committed to another two hours.” March looks over her shoulder for Regina Gordon, who has everyone’s 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 wouldn’t say that to many people.”
Mimi smiles up at Hollis; everyone notices how competent she is. “Honey, don’t worry about it,” she says.
“You charmed Mimi Frank,” March says when Hollis helps her on with her coat. “That’s hard to believe.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Hollis says.
“We’re gone.” March is hoping for humor as they walk out of Town Hall, but somehow her words fall flat.
They don’t have much to say to each other as they head for Hollis’s 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 don’t think my stomach could take it.”
After they’ve 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 he’s 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 can’t remember. Did he always get angry so fast?
They’re all pathetic, that’s what he’s 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 he’s 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 don’t even know what Bud Horace looks like. Why should I? I’m only interested in you.”
She kisses him then, hard and deep, but she has the nagging feeling that she’s faking something. And worse-that she’d better. He’s always been jealous, she knows that. Well, so has she. If he doesn’t want other men looking at her, so what? It’s because he loves her, that’s all. It’s 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 they’ve begun living together, they don’t go out very much, or at least March doesn’t. She has set up a work space on the third floor, in an old guest bedroom, and she’s 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 he’s at meetings in the evenings. She doesn’t even realize how often she’s alone until she’s run out of silver, and has to ask Hollis to pick up more on his next trip into Boston.
But Hollis’s next trip to the city falls on a Sunday, so all the shops will be closed, and March won’t be able to get her silver after all. It’s 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 he’s to go to Boston, when the phone rings. It’s early, and again March feels anxious-she’s afraid the caller will be Hollis’s lawyer, with bad news that will set him off. Or worse, that Richard will finally phone here. But when March picks up the receiver it’s only Ken Helm, calling to let her know that the big chestnut tree over on the hill has blight.
“I can’t promise we can save it,” Ken tells her, “but we can try.”
As they speak, March can hear Ken’s 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. It’s warm under the satin quilt. She’s only wearing panties, and doesn’t 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. “I’ll 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 he’s staring at her makes her feel guilty, about what, however, she’s not certain.
“Hey.” March smiles. “Come back to bed.”
He walks toward her without a word; he’s amazingly quick, or maybe it only seems that way, but before March knows it, he’s 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 he’s shouting.
“Wait a second,” March says.
He’s 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 March’s bare skin. “Who were you going to meet?”
“It was Ken.”
“Don’t fuck with me, March.” His voice sounds completely empty.
“I’m 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, that’s what she’s 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.
“That’s 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. That’s what she’s doing, and it turns out she’s good at it. Who would have guessed? She’s not only a good liar, she is better than average at flattery. Already, Hollis is easing up on her wrists and she’s no longer pushed against the mirror. She doesn’t want to think about the way glass breaks, a jagged, unreliable shattering, so that you never can tell who will get hurt. “It’s a stupid tree. That’s all. He wouldn’t have thought you’d 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 doesn’t 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 he’s done, “tell Ken Helm to do whatever he wants. I don’t mind paying to save that tree.”
When Hollis leaves, March stands at the bedroom window. He didn’t hit her, that’s all she knows. He wouldn’t do that to her. She watches Hollis get into his truck and drive away. She knows what people say about Belinda, but she doesn’t 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 didn’t mean to hurt her. He’d never do that.
She’ll think about the yard at Fox Hill, that’s what she’ll do. She’ll 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 isn’t 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 she’s 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 Hollis’s 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 she’s dressed, March makes tea and toast with butter, but she’s really not hungry. The way he twisted her wrists hurt, and the way he fucked her hurt as well, but she’s not going to think about that. Nothing happened, after all. Not really. It’s just that some mornings you want breakfast, and some you don’t. When Hank comes downstairs, still half asleep and uncomfortable in March’s 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 don’t feel like it.”
Hank offers to drive her over. He’s had his license for ages, he explains, and he never gets to drive because Hollis doesn’t 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 wouldn’t even be half as good as March’s 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 she’s 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, she’d have to put it on Hollis’s 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 can’t pull their own weight.
“Do you mind dumping these in the mailbox for me?” she asks Hank. “I’ll let Gwen know we’re 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?” She’s so used to her mother’s recent detachment, her interest only in Hollis, that Gwen is too startled to do anything more than nod.
“We’ll 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. He’s shy and uncomfortable about making conversation and he hasn’t 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.
“It’s all right.” March says. He looks amazingly like Alan, had Alan been sweet-tempered. “Those rabbits think they own the place.”
Hank nods. It’s awkward being with March, and he’s 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. “That’s what we need.”
He’ll cut off most of the limbs in the hopes of salvaging the trunk, even though he’s 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.
“They’re 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.
“I’ll do my best,” Ken says. “I can’t 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 wouldn’t let him. She told him no.
“Let’s go inside and see how the place looks,” March suggests.
“I don’t think so,” Hank says.
“Oh, come on. Let’s take a peek.”
March goes on ahead, and Hank finds himself following. The house hasn’t been unoccupied that long, but the pipes have been drained, and it’s colder inside than it is out. Aside from a few big pieces of furniture-the dining room table, the couch-it’s 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 he’s 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.
“I’ll 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.”
“I’m fine.” Something has caught in Hank’s throat, and he coughs. “But if it’s all right with you, I think I’ll 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, that’s what Hank’s been taught. It’s what you do that counts, Hollis has always said, and in Hank’s 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 Hank’s 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. Hank’s father was on the floor, and Hollis rolled Alan’s 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 didn’t say a word. He remembers, though, the look on Hollis’s 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 Hollis’s 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 didn’t look back when Hollis closed the door. But now, for the first time, Hank has questions; it’s what he’s been instructed to do that’s the problem. He’s supposed to keep an eye on March: If she goes somewhere, he’s to tag along, as he did today. If he sees her setting out mail for the postman, he’s to grab it and hand it over to Hollis. When he raised the issue of March’s privacy with Hollis, Hollis laughed out loud.
“You really think there’s such a thing as privacy?” Hollis had said. “That’s just some bullshit they hand out to keep people in line. If you love someone, you do what you have to. You don’t think about what other people might say.”
Well, Hank has done as Hollis asked, he has March’s letters in his jacket pocket right now, secured when she went to say goodbye to Gwen. He’s done what he’s supposed to do, and when he hands the letters over Hollis will pat him on the back. Usually that’s 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 March’s letters is wrong, that’s the way he sees it. And the most awful thing is, once he’s begun to question Hollis’s 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,” he’d tell Hank. “You’ll understand when you’re older, when you’ve had to settle for what you never wanted in the first place.”
Now, when Hank thinks about the way Belinda looked after they’d had a fight, he feels sick. He thinks about the sounds he thought he’d only dreamed when he first came to live with them. Frankly, he doesn’t like the conclusions he’s 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 they’re 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. “It’s okay.” All the same, he’s 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 didn’t want to say anything to March, but that nest is going to have to go.”
“Some people don’t like to hear the truth.”
And, Hank thinks as he watches Ken drive off, some people don’t like to tell it. Hank, for instance, hasn’t told anyone about the old man who has taken to following him. He didn’t even notice at first, but for the past week or two he’s felt someone watching him. He heard noises when he brought old Geronimo and Coop’s 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, he’d 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 Hollis’s property; instead he disappeared into the Marshes, without a sound.
What would be the point of having a father now? Hank’s all but grown, he’s managed without; he’d be embarrassed to be claimed by a pathetic drunk who doesn’t seem to know when his boots are on the wrong feet. It makes no sense; not now. It’s 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 won’t stop. He’s 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 doesn’t 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.” Hank’s actually sweating. Crazy, but he’s nervous being alone with his own father, not that he thinks of him that way. “Okay? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Hank wishes he could be nastier, but it’s 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; they’re 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 he’s 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 can’t help himself, he pities his father. He almost wishes he hadn’t 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, that’s what Hollis would say.
No one gets what he deserves, that’s 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 he’s done thinking, he’s 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. Dale’s gutters. It’s 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 he’s 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 he’s wondering if he’s been misled, and if judgment is not such a simple thing. If he’s 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 he’s 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 he’s back on the ground, Hank claps his hands together to clean off the dirt. He may not have accomplished much, but at least that’s done. March won’t have to worry about the doves, although, in Hank’s opinion, she had better start to worry about herself instead.