He moved through the kitchen to the back door and into the yard. The garden was fading; soon it would sleep beneath the snow, the last of its bounty put up for winter. The dog had gone off on his own. His orbits were wide, but Peter never worried; always he would find his way home before dark. At the pump Peter filled the basin, removed his shirt, splashed water on his face and chest, and wiped himself down. The last rays of sun, ricocheting off the hillsides, lay long shadows on the ground. It was the time of day he liked best, the feeling of things merged into one another, everything held in suspension. As the darkness deepened he watched the stars appear, first one and then another and another. The feeling of the hour was the same as Amy’s song: memory and desire, happiness and sorrow, a beginning and an ending joined.
He started the fire, cleaned his catch, and set the soft white meat in the pan with a dollop of lard. Amy came outside and sat beside him while they watched their dinner cook. They ate in the kitchen by candlelight: the trout, sliced tomatoes, a potato roasted in the coals. Afterward they shared an apple. In the living room, they made a fire and settled on the couch beneath a blanket, the dog taking his customary place at their feet. They watched the flames without speaking; there was no need for words, all having been said between them, everything shared and known. When a certain time had passed, Amy rose and offered her hand.
“Come to bed with me.”
Carrying candles, they ascended the stairs. In the tiny bedroom under the eaves they undressed and huddled beneath the quilts, their bodies curled together for heat. At the foot of the bed, the dog exhaled a windy sigh and lowered himself to the floor. A good old dog, loyal as a lion: he would remain there until morning, watching over the two of them. The closeness and warmth of their bodies, the common rhythm of their breathing: it wasn’t happiness Peter felt but something deeper, richer. All his life he had wanted to be known by just one person. That’s what love was, he decided. Love was being known.
“Peter? What is it?”
Some time had passed. His mind, afloat in the dimensionless space between sleep and waking, had wandered to old memories.
“I was thinking about Theo and Maus. That night in the barn when the viral attacked.” A thought drifted by, just out of reach. “My brother never could figure out what killed it.”
For a moment, Amy was silent. “Well, that was you, Peter. You’re the one who saved them. I’ve told you—don’t you remember?”
Had she? And what could she mean by such a statement? At the time of the attack, he had been in Colorado, many miles and days away. How could he have been the one?
“I’ve explained how this works. The farmstead is special. Past and present and future are all the same. You were there in the barn because you needed to be.”
“But I don’t remember doing it.”
“That’s because it hasn’t happened yet. Not for you. But the time will come when it does. You’ll be there to save them. To save Caleb.”
Caleb, his boy. He felt a sudden, overwhelming sadness, an intense and yearning love. Tears rose to his throat. So many years. So many years gone by.
“But we’re here now,” he said. “You and me, in this bed. That’s real.”
“There’s nothing more real in the world.” She nestled against him. “Let’s not worry about this now. You’re tired, I can tell.”
He was. So very, very tired. He felt the years in his bones. A memory touched down in his mind, of looking at his face in the river. When was that? Today? Yesterday? A week ago, a month, a year? The sun was high, making a sparkling mirror of the water’s surface. His reflection wavered in the current. The deep creases and sagging jowls, the pockets of flesh beneath eyes dulled by time, and his hair, what little remained, gone white, like a cap of snow. It was an old man’s face.
Amy gave no answer. Peter understood, then, what she was telling him. Not just that he would die, as everyone must, but that death was not the end. He would remain in this place, a watchful spirit, outside the walls of time. That was the key to everything; it opened a door beyond which lay the answer to all the mysteries of life. He thought of the day he’d first come to the farmstead, so very long ago. Everything inexplicably intact, the larder stocked, curtains on the windows and dishes on the table, as if it were waiting for them. That’s what this place was. It was his one true home in the world.
Lying in the dark, he felt his chest swell with contentment. There were things he had lost, people who had gone. All things passed away. Even the earth itself, the sky and the river and the stars he loved, would, one day, come to the end of their existence. But it was not a thing to be feared; such was the bittersweet beauty of life. He imagined the moment of his death. So forceful was this vision that it was as if he were not imagining but remembering. He would be lying in this very bed; it would be an afternoon in summer, and Amy would be holding him. She would look just as she did now, strong and beautiful and full of life. The bed faced the window, its curtains glowing with diffused light. There would be no pain, only a feeling of dissolution. It’s all right, Peter, Amy was saying. It’s all right, I’ll be there soon. The light would grow larger and larger, filling first his sight and then his consciousness, and that was how he would make his departure: he would leave on waves of light.
“I do love you so,” he said.
“And I love you.”
“It was a wonderful day, wasn’t it?”