Matthew found the morning bright, with only a few wisps of clouds left from yesterday’s cranky storms. The cow-trodden pathways through the pasture still held water in intermittent puddles, all of which Matthew was careful to steer Buck around. Solid grassy tufts were easier on tired hooves, anyway, or would keep them from getting sore and making extra work at the end of the day. He had wrapped three biscuits in his handkerchief, expecting them to last the whole ride but discovered them finished before he was halfway out, which meant he would either have to scrounge for berries or head back home near midday for another meal. Nothing bothered him as much as needing to return to the cabin early, so he decided that he would disregard his stomach as long as possible.
He dismounted when he reached the downed portion of the fence. Three left for today. The soaked ground made it easier to dig the post holes, but it was still too soft to hold them firmly upright. He’d have to prop them up with whatever stones he could dig up from repositioning the holes and come back yet again to check their stability, probably more than a few times. Silently he picked up his shovel from under the lone nearby (what kind? Cherry = romance, maple = balance/promise, birch = new beginnings) tree where he’d left it to keep it out of the rain if more should come. He reached out and touched the trunk to steady himself as he bent down, but when he stood straight again he realized what he was touching and snatched his hand back as if he thought the tree might bite him, suddenly aware of the contact, and rubbed the sensation away on the leg of his pants. Brushing off the feeling, he marched over to the fence line while pulling on his gloves and began digging as furiously as he dared. The work managed to quiet his mind as only a constructive task could do. The effort of using his muscles drew all the energy away from his brain, relieving it to think of the process and nothing more. By the time the sun seemed to hover above him, suspended, casting a dark and tiny shadow near his toes, he leaned on the shovel’s long handle to survey the newly restored boundary. Chest heaving from the hours of exertion, Matthew began to feel calm while he paid attention to the simple act of breathing.
Resigning to the fact that he should sit under some shade, he moved to the tree’s cover and found the least moist spot he could to lie down. Involuntarily, his eyes stared up through the branches and the softly rustling leaves. The blood returned to his brain and sparked a memory of a day not too far in the past.
He had brought Sarah here for a picnic, just a few months after the wedding. The cabin had just been completed and it was time to celebrate with some time just for the two of them.
“This is the perfect spot for a picnic,” Sarah had said when they arrived, “because we have the shade of this beautiful tree and a view of these beautiful fields of wildflowers. I think we should make a habit of coming out here, how about once every week?”
“Every week?!” Matthew shouted, more surprised by the frequency than any opposition to the idea. “I don’t know if we can manage that. A farm takes nearly constant attention, as you’ll soon get used to, and I don’t see how I can take that much time off.”
“What about on Sundays? It is a day of rest, you know, and you’ll wear yourself out if you don’t stop occasionally.” She smiled at him, the smile she always used when she knew she’d said something he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, argue against. The memory of that smile froze in his mind just then, along with the way her hair picked up slightly in the breeze at the same time, making her face the sweetest thing he’d ever seen on earth.
Sitting up, he wrapped his arms around his knees and looked back at the fence to force away the image and the tears he could feel pushing out from the corners of his eyes. He cast his glance around a bit, searching for something else to take its place, and found his own reflection in one of the larger puddles in the path. He stood then, and moved a bit closer to its edge so he could see his face look straight down into it. He noticed the stubble on his chin and cheeks had filled in more than he thought, and his curly hair had lengthened to cover his ears almost completely. He removed his hat to run his fingers through his bangs, trying to uncover the forehead underneath, and discovered the dirt still there from yesterday had found some wrinkles he never knew existed. With a heavy sigh, he wondered if it was worth finding the scissors and soap to do something about this unknown person staring back at him.
Not totally lost in this gaze, Matthew noticed some movement on the water’s surface next to him. Sarah’s face rose to rest next to his reflection, as if she had just stepped up next to him to see what he found so interesting in the puddle. It was the same face he had remembered minutes ago, lying under the tree. She smiled another smile this time. The corners of her mouth wrinkled with what seemed a happy expression, but her eyes held a soft sadness that dampened it. He stared for several seconds, not willing to look away or speak, hoping to hold on to that image as long as possible. The look in her eye changed to expectant, like she was waiting for him to say something – it had been so long since they had spoken.
“Sarah…” was all he could accomplish in a whisper so faint that the breeze blew it away as soon as he uttered it. He was unsure he had said anything at all, and began to fear this was a trick his mind was playing on him.
“I’m here, Matthew,” the image said in an equally quiet whisper. He let out a quick gasp and began to smile. He refused to let any part of his body move, even to turn sideways to see if she really was standing next to him, just in case any movement would disturb the surface of the puddle.
“I miss you, so much. Where are you?” he finally spoke to the water.
“Right here, sweetie, right here. I’m with you, always, just like I promised.” Sarah’s face grew calmer then, the smile replaced by a worried look. “But, we could be closer, if you’d like.”
“How? Just tell me, I’ll do anything…” he breathed out quickly, desperately, and louder now that she hadn’t disappeared.
“There is a way, if you trust me. Do you trust me? Do you want to be together?”
“More than anything!”
“Alright. Come closer and I’ll tell you.” Matthew carefully bent at the knees and waist, finally resting his palms near the edge of the puddle, inching closer to its surface and the slowly returning smile on Sarah’s face.
Suddenly, the puddle began to ripple and her image became blurred. Matthew opened his mouth to speak again and he furrowed his brows in confusion. Just as quickly, however, the surface stilled and two images appeared in the water. This time Matthew looked for his wife’s blond hair and beckoning expression only to find Mary’s dark hair and placid face. He stood and whirled around to face her, screaming, “What do you want?”
“Oh, I – I didn’t mean to startle you…” Mary stammered, shocked at how quickly his mood seemed to change from curiosity to fury. “I just thought you’d be done with the fence and need something to eat. I was only going to bring you this butter bread and an apple and leave again. Don’t let me disturb you.” She held out a small basket which held the uninvited nourishment.
“You’ve already done that.” He mumbled gruffly. Mary, seeing he made no move to take the basket, set it down at the edge of the path.
“Well, I’m leaving. You can get back to whatever you were doing.” With that, she walked back over to where her own horse had begun to munch on the tall grass. Matthew watched her climb up and use her heels to urge the animal into a canter. He abruptly felt weak and disappointed, allowing himself to sink to his knees before burying his face in his hands and sitting on his heels. Unable to resist the fire building behind his eyelids any longer, his shoulders began to shake with sobs as the tears flowed out onto his rough cheeks.