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It's Nelly's World

The Place You Love Is Gone

alec vanderboom



When I lie in my bed, all I need do to enter the past is turn my head. In an instant I pass through years. Through the window I catch a slice of a great red barn, silver metal roof, that has been standing a hundred years or more. It is itself made from parts of other, older barns, so its history encompasses others' histories; in this respect it is like me. It is only steps from the house, but I think of how far it is on a dark and cold winter night, one perhaps deep in drifting snow and sharp wind. I have read that people had to string ropes from their homes to their barns so that farmers wouldn't be lost forever between them in the swallowing snow when they went of a dark morning to tend the livestock.

It takes only a small sleight of mind to imagine this lonely scene out my window, so unreconstructed is the view out back of the house. This is one of the many gifts this place has given up: the ability to live in the midst of a past so easily called up it is almost here.

Looking at this scenery, devoid of much human mark except for rail fencing, depending how you allow your eyes to frame it, inspires inexcusable bouts of corniness. I will try to suppress them. But it almost hurts to be here now, now I know I must leave.

We got this place through the misfortunes of the family who preceded us in it. I have felt the weight of this sometimes. Our luck. Their loss.

When I looked about, I saw dreams to come. The old shed by the mulberry tree, where in the late spring we would wade out in the tall grass and fill buckets with warm berries, and eat half of them before we could even make it back up onto the porch. The shed would become a playhouse for our son, a place of his own.

The barn, I wasn't sure if it would become home again to horses and goats, or if its new reclamation should make it a temple to creativity: we could show our friends' paintings, have readings, host children's plays, and barn dances of course. It was already a temple anyway, a temple of space, rising up to the heights of the great roof, making you rise with it.

The gardens were struggling, and every spring I would add one or two perennials, every fall a handful of bulbs. Someday, I imagined, they would look just like those English cottage gardens, laying down swaths of color, packed in and blurring like an Impressionist canvas.

Most of all, this place has been a Disneyland for dogs: due to its exceptional topography, once we fenced and gated the road side, the back could be left open--no dog was going to leave home via a swamp. And so it has been Nelly's playground, and also the foxes', the deer's, the coyotes'. We were all here together, and what a privilege it's been.

We are pack animals, too. Nelly's excitement on seeing Willy and Dixie, or Nora and Malcolm, or Juni and Izzy, boils over like pasta water on a hot stove (did I mention she's a screamer?). She needs her mates, her community. And I need mine. I found it on this road. Bonnie, Pam, Jeanette: dear friends, dear friends. We have the keys to one another's houses. We give each other as emergency contacts. We share our produce, sometimes our eggs. We lend our ears and our shoulders. "Could you please take my dog for a walk today?" "Can you come over for a minute; I need to talk." "I'm going to the store, can I pick up something for you?" This is the ideal village, the one they always talk about being lost. I found it.

And because of the same misfortune that now has befallen us, someone else will have the luck to find this place, its beauty that was like nutrition to me. My loss, their luck. Perhaps it will be a weight on them, sometimes.

Change is inevitable, so they say. I know this; I accept this. Right now, I embrace it, in moments--it's like knowing your birthday is on the horizon: Oh, damn. Another year, resting on my shoulders, as your years do on you (I sometimes remember to remind myself that all of us currently on the planet are aging at exactly the same rate; it makes me feel a little better about hanging out with the occasional fashion model friend). Still, hey--presents, cake, a party! But let me invite you in to the particularities of this change. In the future, I will also fill you in on the unexpected gifts of what is unseen, but waiting.

I'll leave my flowers; someone else will watch them bloom. I'll leave my fountain, the sound of which made me feel cool in the summer. I'll leave this dogs' paradise. I'll leave my pack, and I can't imagine finding one again as tight, as perfect. I'll leave behind the unfulfilled dreams, the tumbledown outbuildings; the treehouse whose site was selected but remains a pencil drawing in the brain. My head, at any rate, comes up with plans at a rate that the most dedicated construction crew could not keep up with even if I'd kept them on retainer and housed them in the barn (which they'd have had to have repaired first).

On Halloween, I had a bonfire party out by the barn, a big fire blazing in the fire circle. We ate chili and cornbread; we talked, as fires tend to make us do. I had titled it a Burn the Past bonfire; this sounded brave to me, the announcement of a ritual when a ritual seemed so desperately required. Everyone was encouraged to throw into the flames something that reminded them of something that was over. I had my contributions. I went through the motions, as rituals are comprised of motions. But it felt hollow. It felt like whistling in the dark. I wanted it to be true, that I could forget as soon as the mementos were ash, but I couldn't. I didn't let anyone know, however. At the end, someone remarked that maybe they would host the same party next year. I spoke up brightly, "Or maybe I'll do it again here!" They were silent. I had forgotten I would no longer be here. They looked at me as you would a person with terminal illness who insists on talking about the future.

My son had painted a picture of the phoenix that is to rise from these flames. The phoenix, I trust, is me and him together. The phoenix will be the new house into which we will move soon; I imagine it to resemble the wish house I have carried in my mind's eye for twenty-five years now. I know the dangers of having dreams that are too specific, too much like a shopping list. I cannot picture the person who I hope one day will allow me to trust, and to love, again. If I do, I may walk past him when he, unrecognizable, appears.

I know we can find a place that will be good and happy for both of us, and for Nelly. I daren't hope we could find one whose landscapes, framed by every window, would make me feel so goddamn lucky. I daren't hope we could find a pack as fine as we have belonged to here. But maybe. And other flowers. In summer.