We hollow rotten wood from the west-facing wall of the barn and suddenly reach the nineteenth century frame. We are quiet before the hand-carved joinery, the massive beams resting on stones so large and heavy they were surely dragged by oxen. When at last we speak, our sentences are short and efficient, as befits men who have caught a glimpse of what language can only hint at.
Yet later, out front, reframing the rickety stairs, we end up talking about farmers we knew in the early 1970s, men our fathers called to build pole barns and haul calves from struggling cows, who could measure with their eyes a 32nd of an inch, and for whom a team of oxen would stop, turn and start again on syllables so gently uttered it is hard to imagine a less-adorned intimacy. We agree that we were fortunate to know these men, and the world they made that was even then departing, and wonder what, if anything, we might have done to preserve it. It quiets us, our complicity. How blunt our hands are! And how elaborate the semantics by which we justify their emptiness.
Main Street – which is behind us as we work – runs west and east on a slow curve, like a resting bow or a woman’s shoulder. Scudding clouds forecast rain; the north wind is voluble and cold.
She lives at a distance which saddens me, a grief made starker by her poems. When I am sad I consent to longing, which is to deny the boundaries and constraints that naturally attend existence. In time the longing becomes bitter, and the bitterness becomes toxic. It takes a long time to walk off one’s dream of a different woman and a landscape in which loving her is viable. You have to ask what makes a dream like that possible. You have to go very deep into loneliness, very deep into despair. You have to find out what necessity truly is. And when it is time to come back, you have to come back, whether you are finished with the inquiry or not.
In time my feet hurt so I take the road that was made to lead me home. Chrisoula sits on the stairs, hands folded on her lap in the dusk, and rises to greet me. “Thank you for fixing everything,” she whispers; her hair smells like smoke and sage and something fainter I cannot say. I want to spill my unworthiness here. I want to tell her my life is a series of losses and betrayals no measure of love can either halt or redeem. But my tongue as always fails me. My beginning and my end remain hidden, unmapped.
We go inside and sit at the table. Our reflection in the windows is wavery and thin; we hold hands saying grace. “Bless this bounty and may we not forget those whose hunger tonight will not be met.” Do you know how sometimes when there is no light you can still find the way? “Forgive us our sins that we might in turn forgive one another.” The bread steams when I lay the knife against it. “By your mercy are we fed, by your justice do we live.” I fill Chrisoula’s plate with food; I fill my children’s plates with food. “Alleluia, alleluia.” Amen.