October 23, 2002

Hope Has Wings

Once again the mental tumblers had aligned and without conscious effort although not against his will, the vault of memory swung open. This memory had been triggered by something length of day, the smell of October's fermenting organic tea, or some random synaptic impulse out of his third cup of coffee that morning. "This time X years ago, thus and so happened..." came the reflex to the unknown stimulus, and some small reservoir of recollection flooded into the present from the past. The annual passage of the sun has marked his life more indelibly than most, perhaps, more deeply etched his mind with calendar mileposts that he rehearses, like a rosary, each year as weeks and months repeat themselves, over and over and over. Mostly, but not completely, this looking back has been a good thing, a form of celebration, a way to calibrate today's good or ill fortune in light of other years.

Man and wife walk high on the hill, which many would call a mountain, behind the white farmhouse with a wisp of white smoke rising lazily from the chimney. They climb slowly up the steep hillside, up where the loggers took the forest brutally away some eight years before. The white pines are aggressively filling the void, growing so tall that in two or three years from this date in October, there will be no view but of pine branches and sky. But today from that hillside, the couple will be able to take in the entirety of their valley and the poplar-capped ridges beyond. It was from that high place as he watched low clouds scurry past and fog lift off of the creeks into the gold of Autumn's last hosannas, that he remembered, partly a deliberate act of will and partly his anniversary reflex, a day five years ago this very week in October, when he scanned the cold, gray skies for comfort, for hope, for a sign that he and wife had not made a terrible mistake.

Leaving a comfortable job in a modest town among pleasantly average friendships, he had taken the one chance that had offered itself for him and his wife to plant roots in this strangely familiar soil, back in their beloved mountains once more. He would return to the low mountains of western Virginia that had been home once before because it was what he must do, but he would have to come alone, for at least a year, to attempt to create the life they hoped for. She would stay back in North Carolina to finish a degree she needed to keep pace with her own changing profession. They resolved to see this challenge through no matter what it took, and soon, he woke up in another life, far away and alone.

By late October, the routine of his new job came automatically. He returned each evening to a house that did not seem much like home. He functioned mechanically and without enthusiasm in a cold and lonely cabin on Walnut Knob, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, fifteen miles from the little town of Floyd where he worked. For the most part, hermetic days were filled with the mundane tasks of mere survival: the awkward, unfamiliar job of cooking for himself; tending to the cat; doing the laundry; and generally maintaining a faint semblance of order, or a perceptibly elevated orderliness when he was expecting the wife to come for the occasional weekend visit. It seemed strange to think of her as a visitor; but then, with the nest now empty, many of their roles and expectations had vanished like stories ending, unsatisfyingly incomplete.

The beauty that surrounded that modest cabin on the very edge of old mountains was undeniable and pervasive. He found some solace from the woods and sky, the dense fog that often cut him off from even the calls of the ravens roosting nearby. He often set out on long walks into unfamiliar valleys, or up onto rocky ridges past remains of crumbling chimneys, to high places where he could see south, far into North Carolina on a clear, bright gossamer day. Somewhere down there below at this very moment she was living, scrubbing a pot, hanging clothes around to dry in a small apartment, sparse, cold and unquiet, somewhere beyond the range of his thoughts and the voice that spoke at all times in his mind, words falling silent in a vast empty forest.

In that place, exactly five years ago this October week, the weather lost its good mood with the last of the colors of fall foliage. Life went gray, the fogs rose from the foot of the mountain and roosted for more than a week in a smothering blanket over the cabin and the fog found his soul. There is a loneliness in fog that one doesn't understand in one day of it, he thought, but comes to be a kind of death after more than two.

The weekend came and the fog finally retreated ahead of a cold west wind that carried oak leaves over the roof of the cabin and down past the sad bare bones of the fruit trees in the garden. One can dress against the cold, but it is almost impossible to hold out the wind that blows to the bone and chills the spirit. Trapped inside the cabin but blown to tatters outside, he paced the tiny room, fed the insatiable but cheerless woodstove, and wondered what had possessed them to take this foolish leap of faith that brought him here and left her alone in another world, apart. The confinement was worse suffering than the cold, and by mid-day, he felt like he could not breathe another breath indoors. He would go pretend to split kindling on the lee side of the house, under the deck, where only the eddies of the wind would lick their way inside his gloves and down his neck under the old plaid scarf. The scarf smelled of cedar from the insides of a North Carolina closet and he took more comfort from the familiar smell of a place where than from its warmth.

Thank God for the view, he thought. Seeing down, down past the nearest wooded ridge, then the next and all the way to Boone's Mill gave him the assurance that he was rooted and fixed somewhere finite on the planet, gave him ratio and perspective as he searched for bearings on the map of new realities. It was not much, but he searched the horizon of the present for landmarks, as if he might recognize finally the meaning in the terrain, that he might see in that tapestry of ridge upon ridge a sign that this was where he was meant to be, that he was indeed on a path towards some real and reachable destination in their dreams and hopes.

He left his troubled thoughts to return to his task from a cold moment of lost purpose. The axe had doubled in weight, he thought. The wind rose and whistled sweeping over the house, sucking the very breath from him while low clouds raced past in the same direction as the blowing leaves, and only a bit slower. Looking back on that day, he cant say why at that very moment he looked straight overhead past the top of the single tulip poplar that stood between him and the distant horizon.

Fifty feet above him, a bald eagle floated as if painted against the sky, matching its lift against the force of the wind it confronted. It hung motionless as the wings of a prayer, both bird and angel, full of grace, a sign a pilgrims burning bush.

Exactly five years later, from the ridge high above their notch in the wilderness, he surveyed his new horizon above and far beyond the home that had been waiting for them all along, even in those foggy moments of lost direction and lost courage. He resolved that he would come up to this ridge over Goose Creek every year on this date, as long as his strength lasted, to give thanks. He would climb up here to see the signs of Providence in his memories of the year just past, to see a pattern in the passing of the seasons and the westerly winds of late autumn, and perhaps someday, to see another graceful eagle.

Posted by fred1st at October 23, 2002 08:11 AM

I see the beauty of the land; I feel the weight of the fog; I see the eagle.

Thank you.

Posted by: Henry at October 23, 2002 11:46 AM

What a sublime meditation. Thanks for sharing this, Fred.

One of the joys of reading your blog is that I have some idea of the countryside you describe, and it's easy for me to picture it again in my mind's eye. Of course it helps that your descriptive powers are so well-tuned.

Posted by: Curt at October 23, 2002 12:11 PM

Thanks, Henry, Curt.

I got tired of I-me and did this 'true autobiographical' bit third person, just for the change.

Posted by: fredf at October 23, 2002 01:16 PM

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