Bluets, Ferns and Ashes
by Charles C. Cole
Mother’s Day. The ground was finally starting to dry out. Longfellow Holcom drove his little John Deere tractor through the woods and up the hill, chains jangling. He was towing a flatbed of next winter’s firewood, four-foot lengths of oak he’d later cut up and stack, to season outside in the summer air. The squeaky flatbed was made in part from the metal frame of an old twin bed from the rarely used spare room.
As he came around the corner, Longfellow was struck by the sight of a well-dressed fellow alighting on his cinder-block stoop. The strange fellow beamed broadly and practically jumped to his feet, like he’d been waiting for hours to meet his favorite celebrity. Longfellow tipped his Stetson politely at the gentleman, in greeting. He pulled up and cut the motor. They shook hands, as was still the custom for men of a certain age.
“How can I help you?”
“You running for something?”
“Nothing like that. You wouldn’t know me unless you’re involved with the Westbrook Grange. But my wife went to school around here years ago. The town was smaller then, more rural.”
“That’s true. I was 79th in a class of 79 in 1979.”
“Not so many farms or large wood lots any longer. Your place stands out like a crocus on Easter Sunday.”
Holcom smiled. “The city planners had to make room for sidewalks, big box stores, and house farms. You looking to invest in real estate?”
“With what? No, I just came from a funeral.”
“My sympathies. So’s you know, I’m not looking to sell, not while I’m alive. My kids might, though, as soon as I’m out of the way; they’re condo-dwelling people.”
“Sir, here’s the thing: Wanda, my late wife, is in the front seat of the car.”
Longfellow looked over at the rental SUV. It was clearly empty. He arched one eyebrow, an ability he’d inherited from his mother.
Collins explained: “Her ashes are in a wooden box, looks like Chinese takeout. She hated Chinese takeout.”
“Sorry for your loss.”
“When we first started dating, there was a meadow hereabouts. Right?”
“An overgrown sandpit. Still here. Even more overgrown. Lots of pine twice as tall as me. And alder.”
“Wanda took me there once. We were hiking up the power line, but she had a detour in mind. There was a little pond in one corner, patches of bluets, ferns, wild strawberries and a discarded engine block.”
“That’s long gone now. Remnants of my older brother’s mechanics’ class.”
“She had a blanket, and we committed to each other right there. It was the start of 45 years together.”
“This land’s been in my family for 70 years. That would make you and your then-teenaged lover trespassers.”
“The land wasn’t posted. Back then, people used to say if there were no ‘Keep Out’ signs, the land was open to the public.”
“A rumor started by the snow-mobile club.”
“We couldn’t see a house from where we were, though a bearded collie bounded by to say hello.”
“That was Jenny. She was a bit of a floozy. Treated every stranger, especially men, like her new best friend. Surprised she didn’t follow you home.”
“Mr. Holcom, Wanda asked me to spread her ashes here. Dying makes you sentimental for the halcyon days of your youth, I guess.”
“What do you say?” asked Collins, getting to the point.
Holcom was tired and could do with some free and convenient assistance. “If you help me unload the hardwood, you and the missus can ride in the wagon. Say your farewells. But if you fall off, you can’t sue. If you get a tick bite, you can’t sue. If the mud sucks those shiny shoes off your feet —”
“I’ll be sure to tell the kids next time they visit,” said Holcom, with a cynical chuckle, “which’ll probably be Thanksgiving. It’ll gross them out, like eating raw oysters. Should have done it with their mother, now that I think of it, but she was a bit of a traditionalist; wanted to be near her folks. She’d have been lonely away from people.”
Back in the woods, Holcom turned off the tractor and sat with his back to the “meadow.” He understood the need for privacy. He suddenly wished he still smoked a pipe. “I’ll wait over here. Wouldn’t want you to get lost.”
The new widower walked carefully among the ferns and the bluets, and time melted away. Even with all the intervening years, this was still the same meadow. He sprinkled her remains slowly, methodically, covering as much area as he could. He thought about finding his way to the power line, rewinding that day. But his task was over too soon.
When Collins didn’t return, Holcom glanced at his watch: he’d missed his afternoon coffee break by two hours. Pulling up his suspenders with his thumbs, Holcom followed Collins into the new “sanctuary.” Collins sat on a large rock, with his shoes off and his feet tangling in the little pond.
“We about done?” asked Holcom.
“Can I join her?”
“When we came before, she walked barefoot in your pond. The mud squished up around her toes. I was afraid of leeches.”
“It’s not really a pond. Just a hole in the ground that goes down beyond the water table. Somebody a long time ago, when the quarry was still operational, got a little too ambitious in this corner.”
“I told her she was my first, but I lied.”
“I’d say you made up for it. Thinking we head back up before the mosquitoes break their temporary truce. I’ve got some coffee and coffee-flavored brandy. Your choice.”
“I should go.”
“You’re welcome to visit. Just call ahead.”
“You’re a good man.” There was a crackling sound as Collins struggled to stand. “Wanda used to say my bones farted.”
Holcom chuckled. He was still chuckling while brushing his teeth for bed.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole