Chapter 10

 

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.

– Walden

The refrigerator was stocked with a chicken and parsnip casserole, a pot of barley soup, half a dozen eggs, a little tub of butter, a slab of goat cheese and three bottles of root beer. There was a loaf of fresh onion rye bread and glass jars of homemade apricot and pear preserves on the counter. But what Spur ate for supper was pie. Someone had baked him two pies, a peach and an apple. He ate half of each, and washed them down with root beer. Why not? There was nobody around to scold him and he was too tired to heat up the soup or the casserole, much less to eat it. Eating pie took no effort at all. Besides, he hadn’t had a decent slice of pie since he had left Littleton. The niceties of baking were beyond the field kitchens of the Corps of Firefighters.

Afterward he poured himself a tumbler of applejack and sat at the kitchen table, trying to decide who had brought what. The barley soup felt like an offering from sturdy Peace Toba. Gandy Joy knew he had a developed a secret weakness for root beer, despite growing up in a farmstead that lived and died by cider. The Millisaps had the largest herd of goats in town. He wasn’t sure who had made the casserole, although he would have bet it wasn’t the Velez sisters. Casseroles were too matronly for the Velezes. They were in their early twenties and single and a little wild — at least by Littleton’s standards. They had to be, since they were searching for romance in a village of just over six hundred souls. Everyone said that they would probably move to Longwalk someday, or even to Heart’s Wall, which would break their parents’ hearts. He was guessing that the pies had come from their kitchen. A well-made pie was as good as a love letter. But would the Velez sisters just assume he and Comfort were finally going to split? Comfort must have decided on her own and was telling people in the village. Then Spur remembered that Sly had said he had heard something. And if Sly knew, then everyone knew. In a nosy village like Littleton, if a kid skinned his knee playing baseball, at least three moms fell out of trees waving bandages.

Spur put the food away and washed the dishes, after which there was no reason to stay in the kitchen. But he lingered for a while, trying to avoid the memories which whispered to him from the other rooms of the cottage. He remembered his stern grandparents ghosting around the wood stove in their last years. He remembered boarding Diligence Cottage up after GiGo died, the lumpy furniture and the threadbare carpet receding into the gloom. And then he and Comfort pulling the boards down and rediscovering their new home. The newlyweds had moved almost all of GiGo and GiGa’s things to the barn, where they moldered to this day. Spur and Comfort had dusted and cleaned and scraped and painted everything in the empty cottage. He remembered sitting on the floor with his back to the wall of the parlor, looking at the one lonely chair they owned. Comfort had cuddled beside him, because she said that if there wasn’t room for both of them on the chair then neither would sit. He had kissed her then. There had been a lot of kissing in those days. In fact, Comfort had made love to him in every room of the cottage. It was her way of declaring ownership and of exorcising the disapproving spirits of the old folks.

Now that she was about to pass out of his life, Spur thought that Comfort might have been too ferocious a lover for his tastes. Sometimes it was all he could do to stay with her in bed. Occasionally her passion alarmed him, although he would never have admitted this to himself while they were together. It would have been unmanly. But just before he had volunteered for the Corps, when things had already begun to go wrong, he had felt as if there was always another man standing next them, watching. Not anyone real, but rather Comfort’s idea of a lover. Spur knew by then he wasn’t that man. He had just been a placeholder for whoever it was she was waiting for.

Finally he left the kitchen. The women who had opened Diligence Cottage had done their best, but there was no air to work with on this close July night. The rooms were stale and hot. He sat out on the porch until the needlebugs drove him inside. Then he propped a fan in either window of the bedroom and dumped his kit out onto the bedspread. What did he have to wear that was cool? He picked up a t-shirt but then smelled the tang of smoke still clinging to it. He dropped it onto the bed and chuckled mirthlessly. He was home; he could put on his own clothes. He opened the dresser drawer and pulled out the shorts that Comfort had bought for his birthday and a gauzy blue shirt. The pants were loose and slid down his hips. He had lost weight in the firefight and even more in the hospital. Too much heartbreak. Not enough pie.

Then, against his better judgment, he crossed the bedroom to Comfort’s dresser and began to open drawers. He had never understood why she abandoned everything she owned when she left him. Did it mean that she was planning to come back? Or that she was completely rejecting their life together? He didn’t touch anything, just looked at her panties, black and navy blue and gray — no pastels or patterns for his girl. Then the balled socks, sleeveless blouses, shirts with the arms folded behind them, heavy workpants, lightweight sweaters. And in the bottom drawer the jade pajamas of black-market material so sheer that it would slip from her body if he even thought about tugging at it.

Not exactly something a farmer’s wife would wear.” Spur spoke aloud just to hear a voice; the dense silence of the cottage was making him edgy. “At least, not this farmer’s wife.”

Now that he was losing Comfort, Spur realized that the only person in his family was his father. It struck him that he had no memories of his father in the cottage. He could see Cape in the dining room of the big house or the library or dozing in front of the tell. Alone, always alone.

Spur had a bad moment then. He stepped into the bathroom, and splashed some cold water on his face. He would have to remarry or he would end up like his father. He tried to imagine kissing Bell Velez, slipping a hand under her blouse, but he couldn’t.

Knock, knock.” A woman called from the parlor. “Your father claims you’re back.” It was Gandy Joy.

Just a minute.” Spur swiped at his dripping face with the hand towel. As he strode from the bedroom, the smile on his face was genuine. He was grateful to Gandy Joy for rescuing him from the silence and his dark mood.

She was a small, round woman with flyaway hair that was eight different shades of gray. She had big teeth and an easy smile. Her green sundress exposed the wrinkled skin of her wide shoulders and arms; despite farm work she was still as fair as the flesh of an apple. Spur had been mothered by many of the women of Littleton as a boy, but Gandy Joy was the one who meant the most to him. He had to stoop over slightly to hug her.

Prosper.” She squeezed him so hard it took his breath away. “My lovely boy, you’re safe.”

Thank you for opening the cottage,” he said. “But how did you find everything?” She smelled like lilacs and he realized that she must have perfumed herself just for him.

Small house.” She stepped back to take him in. “Not many places a thing can be.”

Spur studied her as well; she seemed to have aged five years in the ten months since he’d seen her last. “Big enough, especially for one.”

I’m sorry, Prosper.”

When Spur saw the sadness shadow her face, he knew that she had heard something. She was, after all, the village virtuator. He supposed he should have been relieved that Comfort was letting everyone know she wanted a divorce, since that was what he wanted too. Instead he just felt hollow. “What has she told you?”

Gandy Joy just shook her head. “You two have to talk.”

He thought about pressing her, but decided to let it drop. “Have a seat, Gandy. Can I get you anything? There’s applejack.” He steered her toward the sofa. “And root beer.”

No thanks.” She nodded at her wooden-bead purse, which he now noticed against the bolster of the sofa. “I brought communion.”

Really?” he said, feigning disappointment. “Then you’re only here on business?”

I’m here for more reasons than you’ll ever know.” She gave him a playful tap on the arm. “And keeping souls in communion is my calling, lovely boy, not my business.” She settled on the sofa next to her purse and he sat facing her on the oak chair that had once been his only stick of furniture.

How long are you with us?” She pulled out three incense burners and set them on the cherry wood table that Comfort had ordered all the way from Providence.

A week.” Spur had seen Gandy Joy’s collection of incense burners, but he had never known her to use three at once for just two people. “I’ll catch up with the squad in Cloyce Forest. Easy work for a change; just watching the trees grow.” He considered three excessive; after all, he had accepted communion regularly with the other firefighters.

We weren’t expecting you so soon.” She slipped the aluminum case marked with the seal of the Transcendent State from her purse. “You didn’t come on the train.”

No.”

She selected a communion square from the case. She touched it to her forehead, the tip of her nose and her lips and then placed it on edge in the incense burner. She glanced up at him and still the silence stretched. “Just no?” she said finally. “That’s all?”

Spur handed her the crock of matches kept especially for communion. “My father told you to ask, didn’t he?”

I’m old, Prosper.” Her smile was crooked. “I’ve earned the right to be curious.” She repeated the ritual with the second communion square.

You have. But he really wants to know.”

He always does.” She set the third communion in its burner. “But then everybody understands about that particular bend in Capability’s soul.” She selected a match from the crock and struck it.

Now it was Spur’s turn to wait. “So aren’t you going to ask me about the train?”

I was, but since you have something to hide, I won’t.” She touched the fire to each of the three squares and they caught immediately, the oils in the communion burning with an eager yellow flame. “I don’t really care, Spur. I’m just happy that you’re back and safe.” She blew the flames out on each of the squares, leaving a glowing edge. “Make the most of your time with us.”

Spur watched the communion smoke uncoil in the still air of his parlor. Then, as much to please Gandy Joy as to re-establish his connection with his village, he leaned forward and breathed deeply. The fumes that filled his nose were harsh at first, but wispier and so much sweeter than the strangling smoke of a burn. As he settled back into his chair, he got the subtle accents: the yeasty aroma of bread baking, a whiff of freshly split oak and just a hint of the sunshine scent of a shirt fresh off the clothesline. He could feel the communion smoke fill his head and touch his soul. It bound him as always to the precious land and the cottage where his family had made a new life, the orderly Leung farmstead, his home town and of course to this woman who loved him more than his mother ever had and his flinty father who couldn’t help the way he was and faithful Sly Sawatdee and generous Leaf Benkleman and droll Will Sambusa and steadfast Peace Toba and the entire Velez family who had always been so generous to him and yes, even his dear Comfort Rose Joerly, who was leaving him but who was nonetheless a virtuous citizen of Littleton.

He shivered when he noticed Gandy Joy watching him. No doubt she was trying to gauge whether he had fully accepted communion. “Thank you,” he said, “for all the food.”

She nodded, satisfied. “You’re welcome. We just wanted to show how proud we are of you. This is your village, after all, and you’re our Prosper and we want you to stay with us always.”

He chuckled nervously. Why did everyone think he was going somewhere?

She leaned forward, and lowered her voice. “But I have to say there was more than a little competition going on over the cooking.” She chuckled. “Bets were placed on which dish you’d eat first.”

Bets?” Spur found the idea of half a dozen women competing to please him quite agreeable. “And what did you choose?”

After I saw everything laid out, I was thinking that you’d start in on pie. After all, there wasn’t going to be anyone to tell you no.”

Spur laughed. “Pie was all I ate. But don’t tell anyone.”

She tapped her forefinger to her lips and grinned.

So I’m guessing that the Velez girls made the pies?”

There was just the one — an apple, I think is what Bell said.”

I found two on the counter: apple and a peach.”

Really?” Gandy sat back on the couch. “Someone else must have dropped it off after we left.”

Might have been Comfort,” said Spur. “DiDa said he thought she stopped by. I was expecting to find a note.”

Comfort was here?”

She lives here,” said Spur testily. “At least, all her stuff is here.”

Gandy took a deep breath over the incense burners and held it in for several moments. “I’m worried about her,” she said finally. “She hasn’t accepted communion since we heard about Vic. She keeps to herself and when we go to visit her at home, she’s as friendly as a brick. There’s mourning and then there’s self-pity, Prosper. She’s been talking about selling the farmstead, moving away. We’ve lost poor Victor, we don’t want to lose her too. Littleton wouldn’t be the same without the Joerlys. When you see her, whatever you two decide, make sure she knows that.”

Spur almost groaned then, but the communion had him in its benevolent grip. If citizens didn’t help one another, there would be no Transcendent State. “I’ll do my best,” he said, his voice tight.

Oh, I know you will, my lovely boy. I know it in my soul.”