- Autumn Hours
"Nothing can steal away that hour's happiness that came and went yet glows within the mind," Horace wrote 2,000 years ago, but on the way to Crow Gap, a vulture settles in the skeletal branches of a dead oak offering its silhouette as we drive slowly by. The head, a featherless knob of wrinkles, looks forlorn above a sable ruff, as the haughty coroner of the fields surveys the undead below his hooked beak and slotted nostril, his single beady eye following our interruption of his all-consuming mission.
Jo, age 90, rises on one elbow when we arrive, an oxygen concentrator lurking behind her sofa under a coil of plastic tubes, and when Sam sets baby Anna in Jo's arms, sunlight floats through the sheers of her cottage like a major chord. The talk is of storm windows: the single-pane sashes built in the sixties rattle in the wind. "You can feel the draft," she says with a laugh, "oh yes!" But when the laugh becomes a cough and Jo reaches for her mask, I sweep up the crying baby and head outside.
The porch faces out on a meadow marked on this side by a hickory fence and rimmed in the distance by a line of low-lying hills running from Cedar Mountain to Double Knob. Looking out with the baby still crying, I can't get the vulture out of my mind. Over and over in a loop, it lifts its hunched shoulders with an annoyed shrug, spreads bituminous wings, and descends from his perch in a sooty swirl, talons dangling. I calm Anna with a long twig and a clay hobgoblin that I find by a flowerpot, watching her swing wildly at the brownie just out of reach, and when I stand, hear the laughter of children—my children?—beyond the boxwoods.
Bees buzz around the eaves of this memory, and Miss Boo, a pony long [End Page 13] dead, saunters by to lip an apple from my hand as crows cawing "now, now, never" flap unceremoniously away. It's Oktoberfest years ago, on a day like today, when afternoon light has none of the thinness it wears all winter but fills the woods with sunbeams and shadows. Our kids run along the slopes of the farm catching the last of the summer blues and chasing Seymour, the colt of blind Lady Hathaway, though the horses ignore the children and wander from apple to apple in the sun-soaked field. The dog Lost lopes after Found, and our toddler, Sam, falls down hard on his rear end for no apparent reason and starts to cry.
"I have an Alban wine, aged nine years," Horace wrote to seduce his final lover during a Roman festival 2,000 years ago, "and in my garden parsley to weave a wreath and tawny ivy to bind back tangles of your glistening hair." His household glittered with silver plate and piled fruit. Leaves strapped to an altar awaited the spatter of the sacrificial lamb while the help jostled here and there, boys and girls jumbled together, the fumy fire quivering in the flurry as smoke coiled overhead. "Come, Phyllis," he begged long ago, "sing with me tonight in that voice I love, our lyrics glowing in the gloom."
But an autumn hour "that came and went" like the arc of a wing behind trees does not need an aged Alban wine. The memory of apple cider will do. Dick makes barnyard noises while the children play among the horses and dogs, and he offers me a tart slice of Rome Beauty from the blade of his Bowie knife. We assemble the apple press in the glow that nothing can steal away, securing the base with metal pegs. Kids drop wedges down the hopper, while Jo, youthful in an Aran sweater and jeans, turns the crank, pommeling fruit that falls in shredded clumps on the cheesecloth. Ratcheting the blocks down on pulp, she presses juice out of the mash, the barrel staves groaning against the bands, as cider winds down the sluice and curls in the pan. [End Page 14]