When Charles carried the dead collie up to his father’s house in the meadow, he was crying, but his face was set. Three years later he left town. He went to Harvard, which didn’t interest him, then on to New York, and finally to South America, where he worked as a liaison for American companies. He liked jungle living, the heat, the brackish rivers filled with fish that had pointed teeth. He began to dream in Spanish. He didn’t miss a single thing about Massachusetts, not the snow or the people or the proper homes, although there were times when he found himself thinking about Hightop Mountain and walking there with his dog.
Charles didn’t know his father had died until six months after the fact. His vision had already begun to fail by then. It might have been partially salvaged if he’d thought to come home. Now that he was back to pay his final respects all he could see were shadows, but even they had begun to fade. Emily’s presence had been faint, a mere breeze blowing across his face. Soon there wouldn’t even be that. That was why he was leaving while he still could.
During his time with his cousin Olive, Charles had been training a dog to take back to South America, as a companion and helpmate. He was tied up behind the house. When Emily saw him on her way back from the garden, she marveled, delighted. “Is it a bear?” she cried. “An ox?”
She crouched down and petted the huge, gentle creature.
“It’s a Newfoundland. My cousin thinks the dog will guide him along the Amazon. It will probably die of heat prostration. Or Carlo will.”
Charles had already hired a local boy to travel with him to New York and help with the luggage. Then Charles and the dog would embark a ship bound for Venezuela. Emily stayed for dinner and was glad she did. Charles told her about otters that were as big as tigers, and tiny wild pigs with long tusks, and spotted wildcats that loved their aloneness so well they screamed when they came upon another of their kind. She felt as though she could listen to him all night long, and nearly did. Then it was too late to go. Her excuse for being in Blackwell was simple: She’d gotten lost in the woods. It was partially true and was therefore neither a sin nor a lie. They were happy to take her in as their guest. Before retiring, she went outside with the little box in which she’d kept the field mouse all day. She opened the top and set him free. Charles had said he was at her mercy, and so she did right by the poor thing. But the little mouse stood frozen. “Go on,” Emily insisted. She felt the trapped thing inside her and nearly wept when at last the mouse ran away, off into the woods behind the yard, to the owl or hawk that surely was waiting nearby.
THAT NIGHT, SLEEPING in a stranger’s house, Emily found herself thinking of a way to keep Charles from leaving. It was a wild, frantic thought. She had no right to it, yet there it was. She rose while it was dark and went outside to sit with the dog. After a while, she took a shovel from a shed, then made her way through the sleeping town. The young Newfoundland followed her, waiting while she crept into the yards of the houses they passed. She found peonies, quince, snowy phlox. She dug up two small rosebushes, one with tea-scented flowers, the other with a scent that reminded her of burned sugar. She pilfered lavender, stargazer lilies, basil, rosemary, sage. She carried her loot back to the house, then went out again, this time to the woods. The dog dutifully waited while she found what she wanted. Four o’clocks, sweet William, lemon mint, swamp pink, tuberose, trillium, marsh clematis, barberry, witch hazel, mallow, honeysuckle, loosestrife. Emily took only scented plants, specimens that announced themselves with their odor. Each flower would be a part of a blind man’s garden, a thicket of fragrance in which even the poorest weed might be miraculous.
She worked through the night. The soil in the old garden was indeed red, and by the time Emily was done she looked like something out of a devil’s dream. The dog’s fur was dusted with soil so that he resembled a creature from another world. Emily took a bucket, filled it at the well, then washed her feet and the dog’s paws. She wondered if the mouse had been caught or if he had found his way home. She wondered if her family had realized she was gone, if her brother was searching for her door-to-door, and if Charles would be content with what she’d crafted, a place of beauty he couldn’t find anywhere else, even if he searched the whole world over. Dear Owl, she would have written if he could have read a note or a letter. Surely you’ll see this. All you have to do is breathe in and there it will be. All you have to do is stay.
SHE SLEPT SO deeply she didn’t hear him leave. She was still muddy, and the sheets she slept on were peppered with specks of red earth. The dog was on the floor beside her bed when she awoke. Charles had left him as a gift. My dear Mouse, the weather would not have been right for a dog such as this, he wrote in his note to her. It would be cruel to take a northern creature there. She supposed he was right. The deep, relentless heat of the jungle, the fish that bit through flesh with sharp teeth, the worms that could take your sight away.