It was a traditional Cape house, but on a larger scale than was usual, a bold architect's airy enlargement. The front rooms were high ceilinged and framed with more massive beams, and instead of the usual chicken-run stairs inside the front door, there was a handsome Y-shaped staircase down a wide hall, breaking at a little landing halfway up and then splitting to left and right for the upper rooms. A Victorian owner had widened the two front windows and bowed them, letting in more light, and then had built a porch between the two bows, with central steps up to the front door and a simple railing on either side. The house stood by itself in a clearing, which you had to maintain vigilantly: half a summer, and the locust, oak, and birch sprigs would be crowding onto the grass. Original glass in many panes; the shapes of things outside alternately clouded and cleared as your eyes moved across the windows. Original two-foot-wide floorboards and paneling on the walls, flouting an ancient Massachusetts statute reserving such width for the absent king. A cool, self-possessed house of mellow resonance, as if you were living inside a spacious cello. Nothing too decorative.
They had three and a half decades to set their rhythms, coming and going to their secret fastness, the Night Heron House with its woods and pond. When Margaret fell ill and the doctors said they could do no more for her, they had moved to the Cape, as they had always planned in such a case, "year-round"; in fact, she had three seasons left, fall to spring, 19861987. At first the house had seemed to banish sickness. They had moved their bed into the living room, so she would not have to manage the stairs, but in the large, airy space she bustled light-footed as ever; she set up her easel, and started a series of tree-scapes framed by the windows at different times of the day. The trees on the canvas got barer, MacIver noticed, as the season turned, but the paintings got lighter, at first because the angle of focus was raised to allow more cloud and sky, and at the end, in the unfinished ones, because the marks on the prepared white canvas, while precisely made, were fainter, less assertive: the effect left on her only viewer was of being pulled in her art past the blank of whiteness to the vanishing point of thin air.
As winter approached, they would still visit the pond on good days, though they didn't stay long to absorb its more furtive movement; they would come out at the end of the path and stand a few moments looking, an old couple supporting each other in a lover's stance, heads inclined towards each other, his rangy arm around her frail shoulders, her mittened hand around his waist. Then they would work their way back; she only needed a sighting, it seemed. Things were moving faster for them now, forcing changes they could not plan. In no time the number of hours she could be up each day, the number of feet she could walk, were shortening on them. By the end of February, she was confined to bed, daily falling further away from him deeper into sickness. He was ill himself, he knew, but nothing to this. First weekly, then twice a week, he would make grim sallies to the drugstore for the morphine prescribed from New York, and come back as fast as he dared, fearful of finding another visible weakening. There was no talk of going somewhere else for final care. It would end here, in this room. He would read to her, coax her to eat a little, play Mozart to her, spin new tales she would like about his boyhood on Loch Affric, and games and battles farther afield. When she drowsed, he would stay sitting on in the bentwood rocker through the fading afternoon. She would wake up and read his unguarded face; she could see her fierce old Scot being gentled out of character by his own secret illness, never to be mentioned, and by grief.
It was all grotesquely new to him; he was not a man who had ever willingly let things be taken out of his hands. Sometimes she would send him on small missions, to shake him out of his spellbound broodings. She would ask him to go down to the pond, "and report back on your findings." At first in the winter, he would have to work hard for interesting gleanings to take back to heranimal tracks on the frozen pond, an air bubble caught in the creamy ice inshore around the heron's branch, the number of trees deep he could count in the leafless screen of woods across the pond, viewed from the oak where they hung the towel. When the grudging days of early spring arrived, and the trees were fretted more with undergrowth, the views foreshortened, but there was more to report. One day in late April, he had taken her back a box turtle, patterned in a smart brown and yellow plaid, but built a little too high off the ground, like the old Volkswagen Beetle, to be aerodynamically sound. MacIver had put him on the quilt, and the little fellow had finally stuck his head out of his shell and taken a couple of steps, before pooping quite impressively right there on the bed. Margaret had given him the Scottish name of Archibald, and insisted that MacIver take him back to exactly the same leaves in which he had found him, with the added gift of a lettuce leaf for his pains. She died three days after that, on the first soft day that promised full-blooded spring.
Excerpted from Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey (pages 3-9 of the hardcover edition). Copyright © 2005 by Peter Pouncey. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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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