The Last Rose of Summer
by Ron Van Sweringen
Donna Wilcox surveyed the Virginia valley sloping away before her: a wilderness of oak and pine, with a tumbling creek winding its way through the wide meadow. A tinge of muted orange and red found its way through the forested mountain that November day in 1944.
How she loved this place. It somehow made her feel whole. She had deserted the valley twice in her life, only to return unhappy and defeated. The old house she was born in and the apple orchards surrounding it welcomed her each time she returned, like a well-worn glove fitting perfectly. In her heart Donna Wilcox knew she would not leave the valley again. It was where she belonged until, in the end, the rich black earth accepted her as it had her mother and father.
The noon whistle at Tucker’s Mill reminded Donna that the mail would soon be delivered. Mr. Samson was rarely if ever late on his post route through the valley. Along with the mail, he sometimes brought a bit of local news. A birth or death, a marriage or engagement, even a winning lottery ticket number sold at Parker’s General Store.
“Oh Lord,” she thought, “ten thousand dollars. What would anyone do with all that money? If it was me” — she smiled — “I’d buy war bonds to help end this war and bring the boys home sooner.”
On the last mile down the gravel road to her farm, Mr. Shepard’s prize breeding bull tried to charge Donna. For sheer size he was a monster, over a thousand pounds. Mean Buckets was the best breeding bull in the county, and he made a good living for Mr. Shepard, but he had no use for buckets or people. Luckily he was smart enough to stop his charge short of the barbed wire fence. Still, it gave Donna more than a few fast heartbeats until she turned onto her own road.
Donna could see the dust trail of Mr. Samson’s Ford pickup truck ahead, so she decided to wait for him in the shade of Hanging Oak, a huge tree that bordered her land. Legend had it the tree was used in the hanging of three Union deserters during the Civil War. Donna didn’t put much stock in it, but her father had warned her when she was a girl not to play near it.
* * *
Martin Payne felt the cool breeze as the window curtain trailed lightly across his arm. He reached out to catch it, but it was gone too soon. He tried remembering what the pattern in the lace curtain looked like along with the harvested corn field beyond it. Then his hand slumped back in his lap and he continued staring at nothingness.
A sandwich and glass of milk were both untouched on a table beside him. A half-empty pack of Lucky Strikes kept them company.
“Honey, you haven’t eaten anything,” his mother chided softly. “Won’t you try?”
“Maybe later, Mom,” he replied, “when Dad gets home.”
A few minutes later Elizabeth Payne sat down at the kitchen table, her face worn with sadness, her son’s words still ringing in her ears: “When Dad gets home.”
* * *
Mr. Samson was cheerful as usual. Donna remembered her mother saying to her on more than one occasion how sorry she felt for Mr. Samson’s wife. To have a husband always that cheerful would be a burden too great to bear. They both always laughed each time she said it.
“Don’t have a thing for you today, Donna. Not even a bill.” He smiled. “Could be tomorrow will be better. Might get a coupon for some sugar or coffee, ya never know.”
Donna smiled and nodded her thanks. At the last minute before the dusty pickup pulled away, Mr. Samson stuck his head out of the window.
“Oh, almost forgot to tell ya. Mildred Foster is in charge of the auction for Martin Payne next Sunday. She’s asking everybody to look for something to donate. It’s not much to ask, considering the boy gave his sight fighting for his country.”
* * *
That evening after dinner, Donna kept remembering what Mr. Samson had said. She pictured Martin Payne as a young boy on the day his mother brought him to their house for lunch. A fair boy with sandy hair and fine features. Not robust and rather shy, as she recalled. In fact, he said hardly anything all afternoon, until it was time to leave. Then he drew close to her and whispered, “Can I touch it?”
Martin’s eyes were on a picture hanging over the living room mantle. It was a painting by Donna’s mother: a still-life titled, ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’ Donna’s mother, overhearing his request, placed a kitchen chair for him to stand on in front of the painting. Then she took his hand in hers and said softly, “Touch it gently, Martin. Art is a living thing.”
Donna was a young woman then, yet she could still remember Martin placing his small hand on the painting’s surface and most vividly, the look of joy on his face. She would always remember Martin Payne that way, not as he was now: a blind war hero wasted in mind and body.
The following Friday morning, Donna woke to a cold steady drizzle over the mountain. She had her coffee before a fire in the living room hearth, soothed by the hot liquid while staring at her mother’s painting, which had been with her as long as she could remember. Yet in her heart Donna knew the decision she had come to was right.
Over the years her mother’s paintings had become valuable, worth several hundred dollars each. Today she would wrap the “Last Rose of Summer” and deliver it to Mildred Foster to be auctioned for the benefit of Martin Payne.
* * *
Martin listened to the sound of his mother’s car engine turning over. He pictured the black coupe on the gravel road, stopping at the railroad crossing. His mother had always been cautious there since the accident. The air was cold and gray when Martin stepped onto the front porch that morning. The world was gray for him everyday now.
His bare feet found the porch steps and then the path around the house, the path he’d traveled a thousand times as a boy, to his special place: a picnic table beside the lake, where he would wait for the honk of his father’s car horn at the end of the day. “Dad’s coming home,” he would say to himself, shivering as raindrops splashed on his face.
* * *
It was late morning when Donna’s pickup turned on SR 60, for the five-mile trip into Statler, Virginia. “The Last Rose of Summer,” carefully wrapped, was nestled safely behind her car seat. A foggy mist now added to the cold drizzle, giving the landscape a watercolor softness.
Rainy days touched some place special in Donna as she watched a flock of birds against the dull sky. The peaceful beauty of the valley brought tears to her eyes. Memories washed across the windshield, filling her with longing and transporting her back in time...
Back to summer days when a lanky girl spent warm afternoons in the porch swing reading Jane Austen, spent hours wandering through the hillside apple orchards, gently touching, smelling and then kissing the pale blossoms in spring, making believe they grew in the shadow of a handsome English manor house...
Back to the rich smell of turpentine and oil paint in her mother’s studio, where the windows were always open wide on the garden surrounding it. To a wicker chair on the porch where butterflies landed on your shoulder if you were very still. But most of all, back to the woman who worked before an easel in dazzling sunshine, her auburn hair piled high above her head in fiery splendor: Mary Margaret Wilcox.
Another face came into view on the water-streaked windshield: Donna’s father, Herbert Wilcox. For some unexplained reason she always pictured him as he appeared in her childhood: tall and straight with dark wavy hair smelling of a trip to the barber shop. He had been her safe harbor in times of turmoil, until that winter morning when silence filled the house, except for her mother’s sobbing.
Two years after her father’s death, Donna left the Valley for the first time, at twenty-four. She had corresponded with her father’s brother in Winchester, Virginia. After a time she was offered a clerical position in an insurance office owned by a friend of his.
Her mother encouraged her to go. “It’s time you spread your wings, Donna,” she said, kissing her at the train depot. “Remember, when the seasons change, you can always return to Capistrano like the swallows.”
The flashing red light of a police car interrupted Donna’s reverie and sent an uneasy feeling through her as a state trooper waved her over to the side of the road.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said through her partially open window. “There’s a rock slide up ahead, the road’s closed for a few hours till we clean it up.”
“Was anyone hurt?” Donna replied.
“No, ma’am, just some boulders where they don’t belong.”
Donna turned the pickup around and considered going home. The problem was that tonight was the preview of items donated for Martin Payne’s charity auction on Sunday. Like it or not, she had no choice but to take the lake road. It was several miles longer but it would get her to town.
Donna turned the radio on to catch a news broadcast describing the Allied campaign in France. The reception was poor and was soon completely lost to static. She tried twisting the radio dial, anxious for more information, but it was no use. When she looked up from the radio, she was on the ridge road, passing Mirror Lake. She had not been in the area for years and was enjoying the view of the lake until something struck her as strange.
She stopped the pickup and rolled the window down for a better view. In the distance a lone figure stood at the edge of the lake, near a picnic table. Except for what appeared to be a blue bathrobe, she would not have noticed him through the rainy mist. A moment later the figure with arms outstretched took a hesitant step into the water.
Donna’s heart raced as her instinct for danger took over. The pickup made a sharp turn onto a gravel road leading to the lake. She tried desperately to catch sight of the figure again while navigating the winding road. Finally she saw what appeared to be a young man almost waist-deep in the water, his face tilted up at the pouring rain.
“Stop!” she screamed, running forward only to be met by a waist-high stone fence. She watched helplessly as the water crept up to his chest. Then she threw herself onto the stones, rolling over head first. When she looked up, the young man’s shoulders were still visible.
“Stop!” she screamed again, her chest bursting as she ran headlong into the lake.
* * *
Elizabeth Payne knew something was wrong the moment she saw a pickup truck parked in front of her house. It threw her into panic as she raced toward the open front door, calling Martin’s name.
“Please help me, oh God,” she cried into the telephone receiver a few moments later.
The young man’s head was barely visible by the time Donna reached him. The freezing water was like needles on her skin, and her hands were shaking as she grabbed the neck of his bath robe, pulling as hard as she could. She was amazed at how light he was in the water, floating to her without resistance. For a moment she thought he might be dead, until his eyes fluttered open exposing the blankness in them.
In that instant, Donna recognized Martin Payne. The red scars across his forehead and over one eye stunned her in their brutality. When Donna looked up, Elizabeth Payne was waist deep in the water, reaching for them. Together they supported Martin to the bank and an ambulance making its way across the lawn.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth Payne managed to whisper. Donna knew she would never be able to forget the look of gratitude in her eyes.
* * *
Room A-311 was that particular shade of green that Donna always associated with hospitals. Elizabeth Payne immediately rose to greet her, taking her hand.
“Thank you for coming,” she said softly. “He’s doing much better, they’ve given him something to put him to sleep.” Donna was relieved at seeing Martin resting peacefully; she had not been sure what she might find.
“Will you walk with me across the hall to the waiting room?” Elizabeth asked. “I have something to tell you.” When they were settled in privacy, Elizabeth began softly, “I had never planned to tell you this. We decided it would be best for both of you if no one knew.”
Donna was confused, listening to the frail woman sitting beside her. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she replied.
“I’m saying something that should have been said long ago.” Elizabeth Payne sighed, as if a huge burden was being lifted from her. “Martin is your brother.”
The words stunned Donna as if someone had slapped her in the face. She sat for a moment staring into Elizabeth’s eyes before the words came rushing out of her mouth.
“That’s not possible. What are you talking about?”
“Your father was Martin’s father,” Elizabeth said softly.
“No,” Donna answered, looking down. “I don’t understand.”
“I know this is very hard for you,” Elizabeth said, “please hear me out. Do you remember the year you were thirteen and your mother went away to New England to teach a summer painting course?”
Donna looked up in surprise. She had forgotten that it was well over twenty years ago.
“That summer, when your mother was away, your father and I made a foolish mistake. It was no one’s fault, a moment of tenderness shared by two lonely people.”
“Did my mother know?” Donna asked, closely watching Elizabeth’s face.
“Not at first,” she answered, “not until your father found out that he was terminally ill. Then he told her. That was when I brought Martin to your house for lunch. Your mother asked me to come so that she could meet him.”
“Did your husband know?” Donna asked.
“No,” Elizabeth answered softly, “I married John when I found out I was pregnant. Everyone assumed the baby was his.”
“Then only the three of you knew the truth?” Donna sighed.
“Until the night John found a letter your father had written me,” Elizabeth replied, shaking her head as tears streamed down her face. “It was my fault, I should have destroyed the letter years ago, but I couldn’t.”
“What happened?” Donna asked softly, placing her hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder.
“After John read the letter, he began drinking. We argued and he grabbed his coat. ‘I’m going to get the bastard,’ he shouted. Our voices woke Martin and the last thing John said to him was, ‘Dad will be back soon’.”
Donna knew the rest of the story from newspaper accounts she had read years ago. John Payne was killed on the outskirts of Statler when his automobile was struck by a B&O freight train. It was considered an accident, although the reason he failed to stop for the warning signal was unclear.
* * *
The week before Christmas, Martin and his mother moved into the Wilcox farmhouse with Donna. It was a large house, empty for too long and in need of love. Donna smiled as she placed a garland of holly on the living room mantle under “The Last Rose of Summer.”
“Do you want to hear something funny?” Martin asked, while Donna worked. “Sometimes I can’t remember things, important things, like my father’s face. I try hard, but it won’t come clear. Then suddenly for no reason, I’m eight years old again and I can see ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ as though it was yesterday.”
Donna looked at her mother’s painting and for a brief moment she was glad that Martin couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen