Henry turned and gave Will his cup of tea and a saucer, prepared as he liked it without sugar or cream. Will blew across the top of the cup and as he inhaled took a loud sip before setting the tea down on the table. Henry took the book again and opened it slowly, desiring to share his thoughts on the poem with Will, aware that his visitor turned frequently to lines in his Bible for comfort and advice. Henry knew that Will must often read lines aloud to others.
"May I read something to you, Will?"
Then Henry read Rilke's poem aloud to the preacher.
"Does that speak to you at all, Will?" A small cough rasped at Henry, and he excused himself and turned away from the table holding his handkerchief to his mouth.
In a moment Will spoke. "Some phrases rang, yes." Will sipped his tea, holding the small cup between his big hands. "The one, Know the great void where all things begin," that is the business of my working life. And that we must give that void our assent is my constant exhortation."
"Yes, well they say that we see what we look for." Henry was staring out the window toward the hazy distant hills.
"And you, Henry, what are you looking for in there?" Will pointed at the little green book.
"Oh, I understood this poet's advice as though I'd written it myself when first I read it, soon after Molly's death. I found it remarkable how the poet had strung words together so beautifully articulating the manner by which I found my way through the loss of my wife." Both men lifted their cups and drank. Will waiting for Henry to speak again.
"Here is this German, Will," Henry said, "predicting that ahead of us all is some experience so benumbing, such an endless winter, that our only chance of getting through it is to have already partaken of it in thought, to descend into the brutality of that winter in willing reverie." Henry gently shook his head, his blue eyes telegraphing sadness.
"Oddly, before Molly died," Henry continued, "Indeed before anyone knew she was ill, early one morning I walked in brownstudy all the way to Gentry Creek and back wondering just what I'd do if Molly died before me."
"So, somehow," Will asked, "for having first gone there in your mind, the actuality of becoming widowed did not for you turn into a harsh winter?"
"Precisely, Will," Henry said, becoming more animated. "It did not, and could not, obviate my sense of loss, but it did diminish the depth of my grief." Henry put down his teacup and placed his hand flat on the table with a resolute and authoritative smack. "So then, now I must visit my own death in meditation and thoughtfulness. Then, by God, Will, I may approach it with some familiarity, and without fear."
Will let a long moment of silence stretch into the warmth of the well-lighted kitchen. "Are you afraid, Henry?"
"No." Henry rose from his chair and moved near the kitchen counter and turned, leaning himself against it. "But I harbor a notion, Will, that fear might come to me down in Alabama as my time to die draws nearer and the pain increases, as Doctor Belton described it must. Hard pain might mitigate my rational mind and allow the fear."
"If you believe actively imagining your final days can give you strength," Will said, "then let's set to it, Henry. What can I do?"
Talk between the two men came easily, ideas were the coin of the realm, disagreements never becoming personal even if at times voices were raised and heart rates quickened. Together, over two more cups of tea each, Henry and Will explicated the poem, gleaning from the lines advice a man could use: Henry must let his life ring as long as he held any shard of it; he must give his consent to what he faced; he must cease tabulating inequity where none existed; he must allow the occasional freak intrusion of joy into this reckoning down in Alabama.
Excerpted from The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer Copyright © 2005 by Sonny Brewer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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