Spring was hard. The hardest. For this late in his life spring brought so many earlier springs to also touch him—a rush of them, each with a voice clearer than the next. Each singing faintly of promise, of rebirth, and not so faintly of fragrant and sunny mornings just above freezing but warming, warming, warming as the sun climbed well above the farmer’s barn, huge and dark up there on the hill to the east.
And in her tow, as she spread herself upon the northern earth: melting snow, dripping icicles, the expanse of fields gradually yielding their ocean of snow to the ever-hungry brightening sky. Insatiable for snow this sky, this sun, every spring long into April, sometimes even May. Snow lingering, appetite waning by then.
Not so warm this morning, though, and no sun, not yet, not here, not now. Warmer then—so many thens ago.
He was sitting by the window, wrapped in two, nay three blankets, though still shivering a little from the cold. Yes, he could turn up the thermostat but there was the question of electrical bills, and he was trying to keep them within payable reason; blankets, no matter how many you piled on, did not come with a monthly bill.
There was frost on the windows this morning—that breathtaking pattern of frozen water crystals, ever different, ever magnificent. Like a wide, pale landscape, drawn by God’s hand, he thought. He lost himself in it until the now rising sun took her jealous hand to the icy masterpieces and melted them out.
April had arrived and it should be warmer. In a few days, they had said on the radio, warm air bellowing up from the south. A ways off yet, they said, leaving Germany as we speak.
The surrounding fields were both white (with snow) and green and yellow (with new and old grass) and many birds were flying to and fro busy doing their many bird things. He shivered again and thought briefly about lighting a fire, but the project seemed too daunting to him, what with the stiffness here and there and what with the little pains that came and then didn’t go some of them. Perhaps another blanket.
The boards of the hardwood floor were hundred-year old birch, and they were a foot or more wide. Well-polished. Well walked. Home to many, many memories, most of them happy. This room had hosted many a Christmas, the tree usually set up in the very corner he now sat huddled in, looking out at April.
Yes, Christmas. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, Lisbet, a wonder-cook and wonder-baker, had been at it for weeks making candy and piling up one host of cookies after another. Yes, every December, starting mid-month or so, her please-stay-out-of kitchen became a pleasure factory, brimming not only with smells and rising dough, but with his mother singing for the sheer joy of being so incredibly good at baking.
So many, many thens ago.
He sees a fox crossing the field, keeping to the grassy parts, loathed to leave tracks in the snow even if they’ll melt away soon enough. He wonders where he’s going. Does not appear to be in any hurry. Not running away, not running at all. Just strolling (and so very gracefully) toward something or someone, looking up and around every now and then just to make sure he’s not being followed, hunted.
He almost ducked beneath the window sill to make sure the fox could not see him but then realized that no one could see him sitting behind a glass pane reflecting the sun. Fox, cat, bird, didn’t matter.
One summer evening, the same master-baker Lisbet-Mother brought home a fox cub. Small he was and very afraid.
Yes, she told my dad, she meant to keep it.
In the fox den.
So, she showed him the old, wooden chicken coop that she had altered, the better to suit the little canine life.
My dad shook his head. There was no arguing with Lisbet. So now we had a pet fox.
The April fox in the field still strolling without a care, looking like he enjoyed the season very much, stopping now and then to sniff the air, and—he thought to himself—smile.
The pet fox was a different story, and he had often wondered what had happened to this poor fox, or not really what, but how, and how badly, and now he wondered again.
For a few days after the fox arrived, Lisbet brought the (still frightened) little cub with her to friends who had a cottage by a beautiful lake a few miles inland. They had invited us to dinner and asked to see the fox, if she wouldn’t mind bringing him, and she, of course, had acquiesced.
To make sure the fox would not run away she had made (or bought) a small leather harness, to which she would attach a leash (for walking) or a longer rope, for securing, say, to a tree.
So, my dad drove us all (me, Mom, Dad, Sis One, Sis Two and fox) to the beautiful lake and their lakeside summer cottage. We all piled out, and fox took center stage. Lots of oohs and aahs and after them all she secured the little guy to a nearby tree while we all sat down to dinner.
Dinner done and dishes carried back into the house we went to check on the fox: no fox.
The rope was still attached to the tree, but the snap hook had broken, part of it still on the ground where the fox should have been.
Lisbet was beside herself, distraught first from losing her fox, and then, once someone, I think it was my dad, reminded her that he must still be wearing his little harness, and as his fate rose with ugly consequence and grew extremely real for her, ten times worse from killing her fox, slowly and painfully as he grew into and beyond the small harness that would in the end strangle or choke him to death. There was no ridding himself of that far-too-small constraint once he began to grow.
Unless they could find him.
He did not often see his mother cry, but now there was no holding back the tears.
Yes, of course, all of us at the dinner spent the next few hours searching for the frightened little thing—who, equally of course, did his best not to be found. So: no fox, and my mother started crying again.
That image had haunted him for years and was now back in full force, his master-baker Mother crying with the pain of the constricted, dying fox.
Now there was no frost left on the window and the icicles drip-drip-dripped almost into a small waterfall.
Lisbet eventually went by the way of the fox. Not in a harness, of course, but harnessed by memories. She lived her last years all regressed into the young girl who’d milk cows and carry firewood and help her mother and aunt keep the house clean.
He visited her one morning at the home. She was in bed, turned against the wall.
“What are you doing?” he asked
“Tending the cows,” she answered. “Cleaning up after them, and keeping the dung for spring fertilizer. We have three cows,” she added. “They all know me. They come when I call.”
Then she looks up at me and recognizes me. “Oh, it’s you.”
A few days later, at lunch, she said something nobody really caught and fell over. Dead, the doctor guessed, before she hit the floor.
She was about as old then as he is now.
Some days he wishes that he had not bought this old house, his childhood home. But it had come up for sale just as he had cashed out and retired with a handsome chuck of cash. He could afford to buy it outright.
And did. Sis One and Sis Two urging him to. And his mostly happy memories.
But when you’re alone among the floorboards and windows of a lively and on the whole wonderful childhood twenty-four seven, memories play tricks on you and you’re slowly going by way of your mother into living more and more in the more and more vivid past.
People his age are dying off.
His first girlfriend, dead for many years now. Well, she was a smoker and probably a heavy drinker, too. But she went in her fifties.
Still, it is very chilling when people you once made love to are dead.
There is something acutely illogical about that, terrifying really. He didn’t get to see her, although he tried, before she passed.
His old grade school teacher, he still remembers her name, dead now.
Boyhood friends with triple bypasses and on the brink now.
School mates with cancer.
The reaper running amok among his happier days.
These days the mailman comes all the way to his house. Back then, he had to bicycle the quarter or so mile to the row of mailboxes at the crossing to collect. He assumes that the post office knows about his age, and, of course, the road from the nearby farmer to his cottage is now much improved, and also kept clear of snow in the winter, so, yes, they deliver his mail right to the door these days.
No mail today, though. Should have been here by now.
His two younger sisters (One and Two) are both alive. Neither lives too far away. Both urging him to get a dog to keep him company. He steadfastly refuses. Yes, it would be nice, sometimes, to have someone to talk to and to lick your fingers, but the upkeep, the upkeep. He shakes his head. No, he’s lived his entire single life (since his twenty-plus-years-ago divorce) canine and worry free.
He looks out again to see if the fox is still on the move, but no fox there now. Gone to wherever he was going, or at least off-stage.
By now he should be hungry, but he’s not. He wishes Lisbet would show up and commandeer the kitchen again. That would get him eating properly again.
It’s warmer now, and he sheds one, nay two blankets. The sun is climbing steadily into an almost cloudless sky. May is not far off. This is a beautiful spring after all.