FICTION, 1,500 words.
I was building a house to start a life on some good acreage of farmland in northern Massachusetts. A place to raise my young family; a town with good people and new friends.
New friends like Tom, who, along with his son, delivered cartloads of well-cut stones for our foundation and walls. When I tried to settle on the price, Tom pointed a gnarled finger at me and then opened his hand to a stationary wave, smiling as he headed back to town for another load.
As I said, good people.
Take Ralph Forester, who I met when our horses stopped in the center of town. My horse got quizzical over a crossing turtle and so did Ralph’s. And so we introduced ourselves by that small point-of-common. In the end, Ralph helped me with my masonry work and wouldn’t hear of repayment. He’d brought a silent young friend who had the uncanny ability to match Tom’s stones so that each looked like it was cut particularly for the ones around it.
This kid was building a wall, all by himself. In much broader terms I too was working a foundation, far from where we’d grown, and my “pieces” were my wife, son, trade and faith. Ralph’s mason kid must have thought in four directions as he worked: Vertically, horizontally, structurally and artistically. I watched, and learned.
I couldn’t just stack my family here. I wasn’t a lone man, although with a wife who was silent, it would seem as if I was alone.
I watched Forester’s kid half the whole day.
My family had taken delivery of items we needed to live. From nearby Lowell we bought a heavy tiller and hitch, a five-section steel and wood beauty that could do the work of four men. We also bought a tiny mattress for our son David, from a man who owed me a favor from just after the war with the South. My boy and I made a deal: David could watch me till soil, and I could watch him sleep.
As it stood, he and Martha—that’s my wife—were staying at the schoolhouse, temporarily, until I had our home finished. I was at the schoolhouse with my wife and son every night for dinner and to put David to bed, then it was back to the camp and to work.
What were my nights like, alone at the farm? I prayed for the well-being of my wife, mostly. I spoke aloud to God.
I asked Him to give Martha the strength to do one small thing. “Please God. Let her forgive.”
Before bedtime, sometimes I’d sit in the stable with our two horses. The stable was the first structure I’d finished, with a large attached heated workroom, complete with a few beds. You see, we were building a home where my family could be a part of a community again, a community where Martha could administer lessons to the town’s boys and girls—her children, she called them.
One night I was alone with the horses, and just talking. Talking to them, talking to myself. It was late and I was very tired. I told the animals we were building a home that would carry the family legacy, something strong and lasting, to eventually hand over to David.
I spoke in lantern light, and the shadows stuck against the wall like they were hung there. I spoke of the coming century and of my son’s future in this land. The horses responded with tired sighs. I thought about going to bed, and felt the warm feeling that comes before sleep. My thoughts drifted to Martha, and I wondered what she was doing—right at this moment? What was she thinking, back at the schoolhouse, alone with a sleeping child?
No home, no kitchen, no yard, no paths. Her mouth, one hard line. Her eyes, the opposite of the eyes I first met. Her eyes, a stage play, where the audience saw the act performed in one way, performed as something joyous and full of song. While I, backstage, saw the true series in my unique view.
Perhaps she was focused on building, too. Constructing in her brain; making plans. Forming visions that brought her to a solid place. I could just about see the pictures in her mind. She was imagining the future. How could I see this?
She was looking out our new home’s clean windows to a daughter tending chickens. A dog chased a rabbit. I could see Martha listing tasks to two strong boys—David and another son who was yet to be conceived—and she wiped dirt off their faces so the townspeople wouldn’t think badly of them. Without thinking, she’d smile.
And then I felt my wife’s thoughts go even deeper, drifting closer to me. It was my imagination, yet I sensed she was thinking of the two of us. Just us. And she wanted to know: How could she live. How could she continue. Could she be forgiven? Was I praying for her forgiveness? Every night?
And I imagined her wondering: Was this new town our answer?
Our last home, in Falmouth, also had a school. And that school had a yard, with a deep freshwater well. One day a six-year old girl embarked on her last mortal venture while her school teacher—my Martha—had her back turned. A barefoot girl on green grass, and then there was just the grass.
No sound. No splash. And not a witness.
And Martha shrieked and screamed and was hospitalized for five weeks. My wife mourned more than that girl’s mother.
More than the mother!
Tonight, as I stood in the softly-lit comfort of the stable, my impression was that Martha was feeling badly again, having a bad moment, and feeling generally horrible. And scared. There was anticipation for the unknown—which was good and healthy—but I sensed terror too. Right now—nearly paralyzed with fear—was that my wife?
“Robert,” I heard behind me.
I turned around and saw Martha standing stooped in the doorway. It was very dark but her profile was unmistakable. She looked weak; beaten. As she had since the child died. “Robert,” she repeated. “I’ve—I’ve heard every word you said. How is that?” She stepped forward and we embraced.
“Have you?” I asked, not pulling away.
“Been hearing your words all day long. Your prayers. How could they reach me?” She sobbed in my arms. “You said I cared for Ethel more than her mother.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You said I’d smile again,” she said, as she cried.
“I have hope for that, yes.”
“I’ll never smile again. Never ever.”
I thought of Ralph Forester’s whiz kid mason. How did a man acquire that skill? Because that kid wasn’t just building. He was solving problems, by himself, every second of the time. If a technique didn’t happen to work, he’d keep the pace and try something else. Because he was going to succeed.
“You are going to have to work,” I said. I was lifting a proverbial stone in place.
“I am working. I work very hard.”
“You are going to have to work to be a great teacher again.” I trued the edges, I ran my hand along the finish side.
“I won’t be that ever again.”
“You never stopped being great. You can’t help but be what you are. And teachers set examples.”
“I set a good example.”
I said: “And you must forgive.” She stiffened. “You want me to forgive myself,” she said.
“No Martha. Forgive the girl.”
She clutched me. I could feel her squeeze her eyes and contort her face and to an audience it would have looked like an awful wince. From my vantage, though, it was good. Because it was movement.
“Ethel,” she whispered. “You should not have walked to where I warned you. Because, because I cannot work without turning my back to you. Sometimes. I cannot. I can-not.”
We stood with that for a moment. Then she said, “Ethel, my dear, dear girl.” She sighed and I knew it was done. Martha’s body grew straight. She had forgiven.
Suddenly Ralph Forester burst into the stable. “Pardon me,” he said, “Shelbourne house has burned, and it’s taken the school with it.”
Martha gasped. “My schoolhouse?”
“Yes m’am. Glad to see you folks are out.”
Two parents had their backs turned—but David! Forester wiped his eyes. “Oh, what a terrible night.” Then I saw him, David, my boy, crumpled at the entranceway, collapsed in sleep from where Martha had set him down.
Martha said: “Quickly. We have to get to the Shelbournes. Offer them our workroom. They could use fresh bedding and heat.”
As we hustled to Forester’s carriage, it occurred to me. I’d had it wrong. With this foundation of ours, finally set and strong, my wife, my son, and my faith weren’t my pieces, they were my partners. We build nothing alone.
ABOUT: Ara Hagopian’s latest book is out now: http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com