June 27, 2013
Nick was on his way into town when the text came through from Tom Feely: “get here now cheese inspector.”
Nick pulled a youie, then made a sharp right onto Densmore Hill Road. It was a cold December and the hill would be hard going, but Nick had chains on his tires. He’d get to the farm in time to charm the inspector.
The pickup crested the hill with a groan and Nick patted the dashboard. The sky was a thin blue and the bare trees shivered resentfully in the wind. Still, the view out over the snowy valley struck Nick much as it had the first time he’d seen it on a glorious fall day four years ago: This corner of Vermont was a place he could learn to call home. He let the good feeling in and burst into a loud rendition of “The King Shall Enjoy His Own Again.”
Down below him, Thruppenny Farm hugged the base of the hill like a child trying to hide in its mother’s skirts. Nick could see the red barns with their thick caps of snow, and the barnyards, tramped to mud by the forty Guernsey cows that Tom Feely kept for his artisan cheese business. Nick bellowed as the truck picked up speed: “ ‘Then let us rejoice, with heart and voice! There doth one Stuart still remain!’ ”
Nick downshifted and eased around the last curve. He was happy to play lord of the manor for the elderly cheese inspector, who was a dyed-in-the- wool Anglophile. The visits were always the same. The old man would greet him with shy deference, they would chat for a few minutes about the queen or crumpets, and then they would go into the cheese-making room, and from there into the smaller cheese cave. Immediately on the left were the shelves dedicated to raw-milk Bries and Camemberts, cheeses yielding enough to melt a heart of stone—and entirely against the law. The inspector would pass them right by, saying something like, “English cheese! People go on and on about French-style cheeses but they don’t even exist for me. No, I don’t even see them. Give me a good, firm English cheese every time. Isn’t that right, Mr. Davenant?” His eyes would twinkle at Nick, and Nick would murmur his agreement. Then the inspector would linger over the shelves of stolid Cheddars, aged enough to be lawful—the prize-winning truckles for which Thruppenny Farm was becoming famous.
Nick didn’t mind indulging the old man with a touch of Merrie Olde. It had been so very long now since Nick had been home that he took a guilty pleasure in following the cheese inspector to his green and pleasant fairyland. And Tom had nothing to complain of. For nigh on four years the inspector had given Thruppenny Farm top marks in every category, signing off on his list of checkboxes even as the seductive funk of bloomy rinds filled his nostrils.
Nick parked nose to nose with Tom’s Methuselah of an old Farmall tractor, its pigeon-toed front wheels capped with snow. Downgrading his song to a whistle, Nick swung out of his pickup, shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat, and walked into the barn. The sweet smell of well-tended animals and hay hit his nose. He stood for a moment breathing it in while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Tom usually waited for him here, but aside from the cows shifting in their stalls and an insinuating cat making free with his ankles, there was no one around.
Then he heard the distant clank of metal against metal and realized Tom must already be in the cheese room. He went out the barn’s back entrance and across to the small, new building with the stainless steel door. It opened into a vestibule where Nick took off his boots, fished a pair of Crocs out of the tub of disinfectant, shook them vigorously, and pushed his thick-socked feet into them. He opened another stainless steel door into the brightly lit cheese-making room, the heart of this farm and Tom Feely’s pride and joy.
Tom was there, heaving the illegal cheeses out of the cheese cave and into a big plastic trashcan that he’d clearly dragged in from the barn; it was far from clean.
“What the hell?” Nick stared as Tom hurled a particularly gorgeous wheel of Brie down into the mess. It burst open like a smashed melon.
“New cheese inspector,” Tom said over his shoulder, already reaching for another wheel.
“Shit.” Nick pitched in. This was serious. Only last summer a dairyman in the next county had been led away from his farm in leg manacles by machine gun–toting FDA officials, for the crime of making unpasteurized cheese. Jailed for months. Nick put some effort into it, scooping up two wheels at a time. A new cheese inspector would want to flex his muscles. Make a name for himself.
In a minute more the shelves in the cave were bare of the beautiful, ten- der wheels that Tom Feely—a hatchet-faced man who wore his Purple Heart pinned to his Red Sox cap—could not and would not stop making. “I was born to make Brie,” he said of himself. “And I was born to make it right.”
Together Tom and Nick dragged the heavy trashcan out and behind the barn, and Tom covered the voluptuous ruination of a month’s hard work with a hay bale. The scent of hay and cheese together was so good that Nick actually felt tears behind his eyes. “By God, Tom, that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“There’s always more milk and more time.” The farmer crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the driveway, waiting for the inspector.
The two men had met on the day that Nick had first seen the view from the top of the hill, a mere ten minutes after he had first fallen in love with Vermont. Thruppenny Farm had been on the market, and Nick had pulled in when he’d seen the FOR SALE sign in the yard. Tom gave him a tour. The farm had been in Feely hands since the Revolution, but Tom told Nick that day with a shrug, “Nothing lasts forever.”
Nick knew a good soldier when he met one. He assumed that selling the farm felt quite a lot like dying to Tom Feely, and he also assumed that Tom would rather die than show those emotions. But Tom was an American, and sometimes Nick thought he would never really understand Americans. They were deceptively simple. Tom might have been feeling anything at all under that baseball cap.
The tour had ended in the state-of-the-art cheese-making room and cheese cave. Nick had watched as Tom bent and looked closely at a broad- shouldered, cloth-wrapped Cheddar, his hand resting on its mottled surface. Tom straightened again and closed his eyes, the better to sense through his fingers. He was figuring out if time had done its work. It was as if Nick wasn’t there at all.
Nick made his proposition without thinking, before Tom had lifted his hand away from his cheese. And so Nick became the owner of a small Vermont dairy farm. The Feelys paid him a nominal rent and kept him in legal and illegal milk products. For himself, Nick had ended up buying a house a few miles away. Since then he had bought up a few more struggling farms, and he had four families under his guardianship. Nick spent most of his time in Vermont and was considering abandoning New York altogether.
But now there was a new cheese inspector, and one almost certainly less susceptible than his predecessor to the charms of a plummy British accent.
“Here we go.” Tom straightened his blue and red baseball cap on his head, and Nick noticed how his fingers lingered for a split second on the Purple Heart. Owner and tenant stood side by side, watching as an old white BMW E21, streaked and spotted and marbled with rust, turned into the farmyard.
It was the feeling of it—as if Nick’s saber were an extension of his own body. As if it were his own hand he was thrusting into the young man’s neck, as if it were his nails ripping through the soft flesh, catching on the tendons, pulling, then slicing through. The man’s eyes, staring with a sort of blank surprise as red blood spilled richly over his blue uniform. Black eyes and red blood. The saber withdrawing, as if it were Nick’s own arm he was pulling back, pulling away—and now he was flying away, backward, into a tunnel of smoke . . . he was being sucked away at hideous speed, and at the distant end of the tunnel the splash of red and the young man’s face fixing in death. . . .
Nick’s eyes flew open, but it was a while before he fully realized that he had been dreaming. In the dream, it had been a smoky dusk, punctuated by the flash of cannon. But as always the dream had altered his senses. The cannon, the men and horses, the gunfire and shouting had gone silent. He heard only the sound of his own breathing and the slow, funereal drumbeat of his heart.
He took a deep breath. He was miles and years away from that battle- field. “Miles and years,” he whispered, and then started playing with rhyme, as he did sometimes to calm himself down. “Tiles and beers. Piles and jeers. Niles and tears.” Niles and tears was a good one, he thought. It captured the weariness of the distances he’d marched and the sorrow of the years he’d lost. “Niles and tears,” he whispered again, and yet again, letting the sound of his own voice drown out the sound of his heart. The woman next to him was curled into an S, sleeping quietly. “Niles and tears,” Nick said more loudly, perfectly aware that he wanted her to wake up and keep him company.
But she slept on and now he was wide awake. He sat up, letting the down comforter fall away from his bare chest. The cold against his skin reassured him; he never turned up the heat, even on the bitterest nights. He kept the thermostat just high enough to stop the pipes from freezing. Just high enough to feel like an English wintertime of long ago.
The night was dark; there was no moon. He could see the showy splash of the Milky Way through the wrinkled old window glass. He savored the feeling of the cold air in his lungs and the sweet smell of the wood fire they had enjoyed after a first frenzied tumble on the couch, their thick winter sweaters still on.
The pond on the other side of the driveway was frozen over. The frogs of summertime were sleeping under the ice, the crickets gone to wherever they went. Cricket Valhalla? He seemed to remember from some nature show that crickets hibernate. He wished they’d wake up. There was no sound except his shallow breathing, and his heartbeat, beginning to boom again. “Niles and tears . . .” He squeezed his eyes shut. The panic was win- ning. Nick gave up the rhyming game. It clearly wasn’t going to work tonight.
So he reached, in his mind, for her. And she was there. As she always was. She stepped into his consciousness with a certain lightness of tread, as if she were walking over wet ground. The dark-eyed girl. Nick’s thoughts cleared; his breathing slowed. She was standing at the shadowy edge of a summer wood. Her eyes were candid, friendly. She watched him until he felt his heart begin to mend. Then she faded.
His bedfellow shifted in her sleep, uncurling toward him, her face turning into the starlight. “Get over here,” she said in a bossy, sleepy tone. She reached for him and, realizing that he was sitting up, murmured grumpily and flounced over onto her other side, soon to be lost deep in sleep again.
He liked her better asleep than awake. She was the kind of person who took life by the scruff of the neck and made it dance to her tune. It was an admirable trait, but experience had taught Nick that such people were best admired from a safe distance. And he was right. But now here he was.
In bed with the new cheese inspector.
Yesterday she had scrutinized every corner of the farm’s operations. When she’d passed the garbage can full of cheese and hay she had stopped and snuffed the air like a bloodhound. Then she’d turned and fixed Nick with a long stare. “You own this farm?”
He’d seen her take in his pristine wax jacket. “Like to come up on the weekends from New York and play with the cows?”
He’d been surprised at how much that had stung. “I live in New York, yes,” he’s said. Then added defensively, “But I was raised in England.”
“Well now, England,” she’d said, lingering over the -gland with con- tempt. She had a southern accent of some sort or another. “I’m guessing you have some rather fine raw-milk camembert in your fridge on . . .” She looked at her copy of the form where Nick’s info was printed. “Jenneville Road. I’ll follow you home and give it a try. Then I’ll report on this farm.”
Now Nick looked at the curve of the cheese inspector’s shoulder, barely visible in this light. Thruppenny Farm would be getting its good report, and the cheese inspector would be off after breakfast, in that jalopy of hers. Back to her usual Burlington beat. The old cheese inspector would return to duty next month.
He sighed and stared out of the window.
The stars seemed close. It was hard to believe that they were, in fact, very far away, in time as well as space. How many light-years into the past was he looking? Long before his own birth, surely. Each one of those stars was an inferno, a terrible burning hell, spilling its light from endless raging fires out into time and space. But from this distance they were beautiful. Watchful. Like the eyes of animals in a midnight barn, shining in the swing- ing light of the farmer’s lantern.
The stars reminded Nick of bivouacking on frosty winter nights in Spain, a rabbit stew warming his belly, the sound of the slumbering army soothing him to sleep. The stars had been bright and close then, too. Now the war was far away and long ago, very long ago. The world had become a different place. Yet the war still shed the light of its conflagration down through his dreams. Nick pressed his palms against his face. The girl with the dark eyes. She was also from that time long ago. Only the thought of her could ever beat the dream back into the past.
The past. Nick Davenant had far too much past. He had jumped forward in time. Two hundred years. It had been unbelievable when it had happened and it was still unbelievable, ten years later. Nick laughed out loud, and without humor.
“Put a sock in it, England.”
His hard laugh softened into a real smile. He had to hand it to the cheese inspector: She was sure of herself in every way. He was glad she was leaving and never coming back. “Sorry,” he said.
“Hmpf.” She buried her nose into her pillow and veered sharply back into sleep.
Two hundred years were hard to hide, even in casual relationships. He realized now that when his lovers accused him of being “uptight” or “emotionally distant,” what they meant was that he was weirder than even an eccentric Englishman should be. American women would overlook a great deal in a passably good-looking British boyfriend. But eventually they began to pry, wanting explanations.
His terrible scars? A car accident, he said. He had been in a car accident, but the scars were obviously war wounds. Hence his avoidance of women who were doctors or nurses. The scar that cut across one eyebrow was dash- ing and ambiguous enough, but the jagged saber cut up his left thigh was heavily punctuated where the wound had been tied up with thick catgut. Roping his left shoulder, a scar from a gunshot wound. It was the ugliest scar of all, because of the infection that had set in.
There were other, more subtle oddities. The flourishes of his signature were neither manly nor timely. Then there were his antiquated tastes in food. This very evening, as she ate the glorious camembert, the cheese inspector had reminisced about Oreos and milk and then she had gone on to sing a TV jingle about them. Nick had no favorite childhood commercials, and he craved boiled mutton, beef jelly, blancmange, and bits of pig, pickled.
Sleep was clearly not going to come again tonight. Nick got quietly out of bed and went downstairs, enjoying the bracing cold of the floorboards against the soles of his feet. He loved these floors. The boards were as old as he was. The trees from which the boards had been painstakingly hewn were much older even than that—they must have stood in these hills for hundreds of years before they were felled. This house had been built in the year of his birth—1790—and Nick took comfort from its sturdy construction, the way it had hunkered down through all the years like a bear in its den. He imagined it being raised, enormous beam by enormous beam, even as he had quickened in his mother’s womb. It was as if the house had been built for him and had simply been waiting across so many winters for him to come home.
The embers were still glowing in the fireplace, and he scrunched up some newspaper, made a pyramid of kindling around it, crouched, and blew the fire back to life. As the kindling crackled into flame, he added two apple logs from the old tree that had fallen in a spring storm. Tending a fire made him feel eternal. It made him feel that he could have been born at any time, in any place. It made him feel that there was nothing so very strange about skipping almost two centuries in one’s twenty-third year, then living out the rest of one’s life in a previously unimaginable future. He wrapped his scarred, naked body in a cashmere throw and watched the flames dance.
But as he followed a spark flying upward into the chimney, his eye was distracted by a white envelope propped up on the mantelpiece.
Shit. The letter from the Guild.
Nick had successfully avoided thinking about it for several days.
He had run into the mailman at the bottom of the long driveway a few mornings ago. “Looks like an old-fashioned love letter,” the mailman had said, admiring the thick wax seal on the back of the envelope. The wax was stamped with the Guild’s symbol: a blooming tulip, bulb and roots and all. He handed the letter to Nick along with the L.L.Bean catalog that seemed to come every week. “Romantic.”
It was anything but. As soon as he’d glimpsed the seal, Nick had guessed. And when he had turned the letter over in his hand and seen that it was addressed in Alderwoman’ Gacoki’s spidery hand, he had known. The letter was a Summons. Not just any Summons, but a Summons Direct. A tulip in wax. A tulip, when they were coming for their pound of flesh.
He had propped the letter there on the mantelpiece and then he had forgotten about it, willfully. He was good at that. It was another skill he’d learned during the war. Don’t want to think about it? No problem. Don’t think about it. Think about the girl with the dark eyes instead.
Now, in the flickering firelight, the Alderwoman’s writing seemed to scuttle across the envelope. Nick wanted to rush the letter like it was a living thing and sweep it into the fire. But he couldn’t. He had to read it.
If he didn’t answer the Summons, they would come for him.
BEE RIDGWAY holds a PhD in literature from Cornell University and is a professor of English literature at Bryn Mawr College. She lived in England for several years and now makes her home in Philadelphia.
Adapted from The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgway. Copyright © 2013 by Bee Ridgway. With the permission of the publisher, Dutton Adult.