By Dena Hunt - Valdosta, Georgia, USA - Lent/Easter 2011
Peggy stood in the little anteroom next to her luggage by the entrance door to the parlor, impatiently shifting her heavy wool shawl from one arm to the other while she waited for the concierge to bring her key. The parlor was cozy and pleasant, but Peggy didn’t notice her surroundings. Her attention was fixed on the woman sitting on the sofa next to the corner table. The first thing she noticed, and what held her attention, was the peaceful expression on the woman’s face. Actually, “peaceful” was not the right word; her face was simply still. There was no smile or frown, no look of anxiety or depression, only a very slight attentiveness to the magazine she held -- apparently looking at photographs, not reading text, judging by what Peggy could see from a distance of twenty feet or so.
The woman was older -- fifty-something, Peggy would guess, about twenty years older than she was. She had a neat salt-and-pepper pageboy haircut and she moved a straying lock of it behind her ear as she turned the pages of the magazine. It seemed important to Peggy to know what the magazine was -- to know what would interest this lady. Her right leg, trousered in dark blue Donegal tweed, was crossed over her left knee, and the dark blue loafer, perfectly matching the tweed, moved very slightly -- not swinging, just a little reflexive turn, as if to exercise the ankle. Sitting in apparent perfect comfort, in a slightly slouching position, the woman pushed up the sleeve of her white shaker-knit sweater to see her watch, then glanced at the enormous French clock that stood ticking loudly between two curtained windows. She behaved as though no one stood there in front of her only twenty feet away.
Peggy was captivated, her attention so focused on the woman that she forgot her own restlessness. The woman’s crossed leg lifted quickly and the ankle came to rest on her knee. A posture that might have looked ungraceful on someone else was simply elegant on this woman, idly turning pages, unaware of her observer. The sofa adjacent to the corner table was vacant. Peggy wanted to be sitting there, chatting quietly with this lady, as though they were old friends -- maybe even sisters.
The concierge, in jeans and a gray sweatshirt, arrived with the key. “You’re in room five. Just go up that short flight of stairs at the end of the hall there. It’s the first room on your right.” She pointed to the hall that extended on their left. “Dinner is in an hour. The dining room is straight ahead of you.” She pointed in that direction.
“You don’t have an elevator?”
“No, I’m sorry -- but we’re just two floors. Here, let me help you with that.” She reached for the recessed handle of the rolling suitcase.
“No, no, that’s all right. I’ll manage.” Peggy shifted her handbag to one shoulder and her totebag to the other. The shawl, precariously hanging over one wrist, fell to the floor when she reached down for the suitcase handle. When she leaned forward to pick it up, her handbag fell from her shoulder.
“Please. Let me take that.” Without waiting for a reply, the concierge took the suitcase handle and headed down the hallway, Peggy following. The woman in Donegal tweed never looked up at her.
The concierge, who said her name was Jean, carried her suitcase up the stairs and left her at the door. Peggy fumbled through the folds of the shawl to find the key and rolled the suitcase, with a clambering noise, across the metal strip at the threshold to the bedside. She unloaded her shawl, key, handbag, and totebag on the bed and finally herself in a kind of plop, as though she’d aimed her body at the bed, then simply turned herself over to gravity. Everything that was hers, including herself, was on the bed. She fell back across the bed and looked up at the ceiling without seeing it.
“I’m here,” she whispered aloud, “and when I leave here, I will be solid, not liquid. I will be stable and sure and strong. I will be able to handle Robert and know how to get the alimony from him that I deserve. I will know for certain that the kids are on my side. How can they not be? I am the one who has nursed them, played and laughed with them, been with them twenty-four-seven. I am the one who has loved them. No. No, I want them to have their father. They need him. But he should not have them, not their love, anyway -- he doesn’t deserve it.” But even as she whispered these words with a kind of determined hiss, her eyes looked up at nothing with the panic of a cornered animal. Then she said aloud, in what passed for prayer, “You will do this for me.” It was a demand, an assertion of a right she held by all the laws of justice. She was their mother. And she had been a faithful wife. She was owed this.
Then she kicked the suitcase to its side on the floor, flicked open the lock, and rummaged through the contents. She wanted to wear something blue to dinner.
She still had not noticed the room, had not moved the towels folded neatly at the foot of the bed, had not seen the small desk under the window with its lamp, its pen and writing paper. Two days later, she still would not have noticed the hardness of the single bed, the Bible on the nightstand. When she left, if anyone had asked her the color of the walls, she would not have known the answer.
Fern River Retreat House was a very small establishment on a hillside in the North Carolina mountains. It was run by a group of four monks from a Benedictine monastery farther up the hill on a non-profit basis, a fact which accounted for the austerity of the rooms and the shared bathrooms, but oddly did not account for the rather upscale dining retreatants enjoyed. There was no charge for retreats, but a “donation” of at least $100 per night was asked, more if possible, to cover the costs the monks incurred in providing room and board, along with free spiritual counseling. Most of its clientele came for this counseling; some came to actually retreat from lives that had become too busy, too noisy, or just too difficult in some way. Retreatants were encouraged to take part in the morning and evening prayers in the little chapel, to visit the room often for private meditation and prayer, and to take long walks along the paths in the surrounding woods. There was a small library next to the front parlor that contained a variety of books. Some were secular in nature, some were religious, but all were intended to provide coping helps of one kind or another, or direction for those who felt lost. The brochures at the front desk instructed those who wanted counseling to sign up at least twenty-four hours in advance for hours specified in the brochure. In the interest of providing everyone with the opportunity for counseling, retreatants were encouraged to let the concierge know if they could not keep their appointments and to adhere to the hour-long time limit for sessions.
This was Diana’s third visit to Fern River. She knew well why she returned. Her life had no hectic schedule, she had no difficulty coping with it, and she had no real need of counseling. What should she say to a counselor? What problem did she have, or what kind of “help” could she seek? No. She returned because, there, it was natural -- even expected -- to be alone.
An hour till dinner meant there was time for another short walk in the woods. She slipped her navy blue boiled wool jacket around her shoulders and went through the front door, out to the small leaf-strewn stone veranda, where a few black wrought iron chairs stood deserted, along with abandoned clay pots that still contained straggling plants, leftovers from summer, their blooms long spent -- an atmosphere that seemed sad on this November evening. The woods and their pathways began immediately on both sides of the veranda; only a small space had been cleared, just in front, for parking.
She was always alone among people, but in the woods, she wasn’t conscious of it. There, it seemed as though her aloneness were by nature, not by design. It wasn’t a choice that she’d made, or that anyone else had made for her. It was simply a natural condition of life -- like the shape of her hand, the color of her eyes, just part of who she was. She felt no condemnation there, no awareness of being someone whose company was undesirable, no awareness of being unlovable. She didn’t return to Fern River because of anything she gained there, but because of something that was not there, that stayed with her constantly everywhere else.
But this time, as she shoved her hands into her pockets and kicked at the dark yellow leaves in the pathway, she didn’t hear the birds cawing at one another or the air moving among the dying leaves still clinging to half-skeletal trees, nor feel its breezes on her face. She didn’t feel like an integrated part of the life there. This time, her aloneness followed her, and with it, all that it meant.
Peggy sat at a table in the corner where she could watch the entrance to the dining room. The waiter -- at least, she guessed he was a waiter -- he wore jeans and a sweatshirt like everyone else there -- had taken her order for beef tips on noodles. Actually, it wasn’t so much that the waiter had taken her order as it was that Peggy had taken his suggestion, and his recommendation for a glass of merlot. She sipped the wine now, watching the doorway. The woman in Donegal tweed entered and sat down at a table near the entrance, her back to Peggy, a circumstance that at first disappointed her, but then she was glad, because she would be able to watch the woman without being seen by her.
She was freezing. She was always freezing. That’s why she never went anywhere without a sweater or the knitted wool prayer shawl that a woman at St. Patrick’s back in Tampa had given her. She wrapped it around her shoulders now, glad that the wine wasn’t chilled, and shuddered. Though Peggy herself was unaware of it, the pastel multi-colored shawl looked strange over the dark blue football jersey she’d found in the jumbled contents of her suitcase. She curled her fingertips to the inside of her palms and blew on them, trying to warm them, resisting the reflex to gnaw on the already stubby nails. She wished she hadn’t ordered wine. It wasn’t chilled, but all wine was cold simply because it wasn’t hot. Then she saw the waiter bringing an identical glass to the Donegal woman, so Peggy extended her frozen fingers, brought the glass to her lips again, and sipped -- yes, it was good. Had the woman ordered the beef tips too? She would watch and see. The waiter, who had been observing her from the side of the room, came to stoke the embers in the grate of the fireplace just beside her table. Peggy was glad that her room had its own thermostat.
The salad arrived. She ate without noticing the piquant balsamic vinaigrette. When the waiter brought the beef tips, she wanted only to slow down, not to finish her dinner before the woman’s food arrived -- she wanted to see what she’d ordered. So she ate slowly, without noticing the subtle flavor of rosemary and thyme. Then she saw that the woman had also ordered the beef tips. They’d ordered the same thing—beef tips and merlot. She was pleased, removed her shawl -- warm enough for now -- and looked down at the long dark blue sleeves of her football jersey. She felt that she had something in common with the woman in blue tweed.
Diana sat in the parlor after dinner, sipping espresso and waiting for Brother Mark to call for her. It was hard not to rehearse what she would say. She knew from long years of professional experience that clients almost always did that. A good part of any initial counseling session was getting past the rehearsed speeches of clients. There was a natural tendency in everyone to control events that affected them, as well as a natural inclination to make the most of limited time by planning, and particularly in clients who had anxiety, an impulse to erect protective barriers to spontaneity. But she had no anxiety; her own rehearsal was more an attempt to rid herself of any kind of concealment that might hinder or delay communication.
Brother Mark appeared, a study in placid comfort, in his flannel shirt and chinos. None of the monks at Fern River wore habits. They felt that retreatants would be more comfortable with them if they dressed in the ordinary clothes of laymen.
“Diana?” he spoke quietly in her direction. “Would you like to come in now? You can bring that with you.”
She took her cup and saucer and followed him down the short hallway to his office -- if it could be called that. There was no desk, just a small sitting area obviously designed to put people at ease, with warm colors, dim torchiere lamps, two leather armchairs with a coffee table between them on a small Persian-style rug. She settled her espresso cup on the table as Mark settled in the other chair, leaned back, crossed his legs and smiled. “You’ve been here before,” he began directly, “but you’ve never wanted counseling. What’s different now?”
She was grateful for the directness. “Well, first of all, I’m a counselor myself. I guess most of us who are professionals are not so ready to see a need in ourselves.”
She hoped he wouldn’t say it, but he did: “Ah, yes. ‘Physician, heal thyself.’”
She sighed. She’d had small hope for this session, and what little she’d had was already evaporating. Nevertheless, she thought, plunge ahead: “There is no love in my life.” And she waited. Sure enough, there it was: a slight, almost imperceptible lift in his upper lip, suppressed disdain for a woman who admittedly had no love for anyone except, obviously, herself -- sitting there in expensive clothes with a concern that she was not loved. She thought he was probably aware that the new Lexus parked outside was hers. She knew he thought her to be self-indulgent. Now she waited to see how he would proceed, how he would handle his own negative response to her.
“What about your family?”
“I have no family.”
“What friendships I have are superficial, mostly professional.”
There was a long pause then. She knew he was deciding how to proceed, to word his response without sounding judgmental, trying to figure out how to remain compassionate and caring toward someone he disliked. He leaned back a little further in his chair, tilted his head backward, away from her, and almost like a physical cliché, placed his fingertips together. Here it comes, she thought.
“Well, Diana, let me ask you this. Is there anyone whom you love?”
“Not at this time.”
“Love begets love, you know.”
“So I’m told.”
“Well then, does it occur to you that in order to be loved, you must first love?”
She had to hand it to him. He wasn’t smiling any more, wasn’t mincing around. Though he’d been predictable, he had at least avoided hypocrisy insofar as possible.
“I have,” she said bluntly. “I do love. And then they go. They reject it and disappear.” She would fast-forward to save time: “I do not have feelings of abandonment, Brother Mark. I am abandoned.”
“Hm.” There was a sudden sign of slight interest. “Then -- you probably already know this, as a psychologist yourself—you may be choosing, unconsciously perhaps, to extend yourself only to those who will reject you. Perhaps you do this in order to avoid a loving relationship.”
No. She knew better. But she also knew that he’d never believe it. His world was not at all unlike her own practice, a repertoire of rational explanations. Depression caused by loneliness almost always had its origin in a fear of risk, a provocation of conflict -- or an avoidance of it -- but in all cases it was self-love, though the counselor never named it that. It was a counselor’s job to abstain from that kind of judgment and simply to detect the client’s avoidance and to reveal it to him. Once his own role in the problem was revealed, the client could accept the illusion, offered as standard fare, that he was really in control after all, that he could solve his own problem.
“In other words, it’s my own fault.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Actually, you did. You said exactly that. But aloud, she said, “I see. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’ll give it some thought.”
“Good,” he said cheerfully, leaning forward in her direction. It was a sign that he was done for now, the brief session was over. “Let’s don’t talk now, but later, after you’ve had some time to think about that possibility, okay?”
She left, taking her espresso cup with her. There was no real disappointment in the unusually brief session. It hadn’t been as bad as it might have been. He might have struggled to conceal his disapproval -- while the struggle itself revealed it. Instead, he’d at least plowed ahead in the script, sparing her the pain of watching his struggle.
There would be no “later talk,” of course. She already knew the script, knew what she was supposed to say, what he would reply, what the illusion would be: that she had only to open herself to the risk of rejection, to the possibility of conflict and compromise, and all that. Then there would be the grand philosophical finale: After all, that’s what life is really all about, isn’t it? Relationships, right? That’s how we Grow. She placed her cup on the serving cart in the hallway outside the dining room and then went through the parlor, heading toward her room. She decided to go to bed early and read a while. She’d take a long walk in the woods tomorrow morning.
Peggy looked up sharply. The woman passed through the parlor without stopping. She’d sat there, turning the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, hoping the woman would come back and look at magazines again, but she hadn’t. Where had she been? Had she gone for counseling? No. She couldn’t possibly need help. Maybe she was one of the counselors -- no, they were all monks. Peggy made up her mind to approach her at breakfast. She’d get up early and wait in the parlor till she saw the woman go into the dining room. Then she’d just go up to her and ask to share her table. She’d signed up for counseling at eight, but if necessary, she’d just not show up for the appointment if the woman appeared. After all, she could schedule counseling again some other time.
She sighed in disappointment, tossed the magazine sideways onto the sofa. There were no televisions at the retreat house, no way to find out what was happening on “The Bedington Family,” her favorite soap. The only phone was at the concierge’s desk and retreatants were discouraged from using it except in emergencies, but fortunately, she had her cell, so she left her coffee cup on the table and went out to the veranda to call her mom’s house and check on the kids. After talking an hour or so, she went upstairs to bed.
In sleep that had become habitually restless, Diana dreamed of the woods. But the trees had been uprooted and re-planted in a desert. There were no birds or other creatures, just a gray-white sky and mud-brown earth and an endless horizon between them. Here and there one of the trees from the forest stood alone. In her dream, Diana went from one tree to another, but as she approached, each one died for lack of water in the desert.
She woke to the slanted shadows of the closed venetian blinds on the ceiling, which was white and otherwise bare. Only slanted shadows, slowly fading in the gray light of morning to complete barrenness. The narrow bed’s hardness seemed somehow appropriate, and she lay there on her back, feeling as though it were a coffin, hard, empty except for her, and dark. The illuminated clock on the bedside table read 6:15. She rose, showered, and dressed in jeans and a beige cowl-necked cashmere sweater, slipped on the blue loafers but took the brown suede boots from the closet: she’d come back after breakfast to put them on when she got her jacket. She intended to take a very long walk then. Meanwhile, she’d spend some time in the chapel until the dining room opened at seven.
She sat on a bench heavily upholstered in tan velvet. Stained glass panels, in a Frank Lloyd Wright style -- all straight lines and angles -- were backlit and hung suspended from the ceiling of the windowless room, the bare walls covered in a neutral seagrass paper, ending in a neutral tan carpet to match the neutral upholstery of the benches. The only expression of personality in the room was the contorted, suffering Corpus on the dark wood crucifix that hung behind a small plain altar. She had once attended one of the guided meditations there. Brother Thomas talked about faith, hope, and charity: how trust in each other meant faith in life, how connectedness was the hope of life, and how love is the meaning of life. Hell, he said, was the absence of love.
Brother Mark would not believe, even if she told him, that she had always extended herself to others in complete openness and vulnerability. He wouldn’t believe that she didn’t choose, consciously or otherwise, persons who would or would not reject her. Because she never rejected anyone -- period. He wouldn’t believe it because it didn’t fit any of the theories he used to help people. And therefore he could not believe -- if she told him -- how it is possible to survive disemboweling, to live through it, and then to extend one’s self again -- and again.
The dining room was open. She sat down and ordered a bigger breakfast than usual to sustain her for the long walk -- fruit compote, an egg, wheat waffles with syrup and butter. She had almost finished when a woman came bustling in and headed toward her table, wearing layered sweaters and a large heavy shawl.
“Oh, hi -- good morning,” the woman said nervously. “My name is Peggy Rivera. Do you mind if I join you?”
“Not at all. Please do.”
Peggy pulled a chair out from the table and began a confused search for a resting place for her large handbag -- a dirty paisley-patterned fabric bag that looked more like a diaper bag than a purse. Finally deciding that it needed a chair of its own, she pulled another chair out and plopped it there. Then it became necessary to decide which of its multiple outer pockets should hold her room key. She had just decided on one of them when the waiter poured coffee for her and asked for her order.
“Oh.” She looked up at him with an expression that seemed to resent his demand for yet another decision, then said, “Whatever she’s having.”
“I’m afraid I’m just about done with breakfast.” Diana blotted her mouth with a napkin and sipped her remaining coffee. “I’m about to leave. I want to take a long walk in the woods this morning, but I think you’ll like the fruit compote. It’s mixed berries and melons -- very good.”
“Oh, no,” said Peggy, before she could stop herself. “Oh, do you mind? I’d love to go with you. This is my first time here -- and I don’t know the paths. I want to go but I’m a little afraid of the woods.” She laughed nervously. “I’m always afraid I’ll get lost.”
Diana heard the anxiety in the false laugh and looked at the woman’s large brown eyes, round with a childlike hopefulness. Why was she here? In pursuit of confidence? “No, I don’t mind at all. I’d be glad of the company.”
She waited with Peggy while she ate breakfast. She ordered more coffee, then she said, “Tell you what. I’ll go upstairs and get my jacket and boots while you finish -- did you bring boots with you?”
“No, why should I have boots?”
“Well, they protect your feet and legs, and you might get your socks and pants covered with nettles.”
“I don’t mind,” said Peggy, though the thought of nettles bothered her.
When Diana returned, Peggy was enraptured by the brown suede boots and matching suede jacket over the beige cowl-necked sweater -- which looked like cashmere. This lady had such good taste. She resolved to do something about her wardrobe as soon as her finances stabilized after the divorce.
Since Diana knew the paths, she led the way along those that were too narrow for them to walk side by side. And Peggy talked without ceasing, oblivious to the forest around them. The talking contributed to her breathlessness, which made frequent stops for rest necessary. She was unaccustomed to such exercise, and she was a bit overweight as well.
By the time they returned to the retreat house, Diana knew that Peggy had been a cheerleader in high school, that she had married when she graduated, that she had devoted the past fifteen years of her life to her husband and three children, that her husband had “walked all over” her during their marriage, and that he had an affair. She understood too that when the scoundrel was confronted with the evidence of his affair, he had not begged Peggy’s forgiveness (as she’d clearly expected), but asked for a divorce. And it was that fact, not the affair itself -- which didn’t seem to interest Peggy very much -- that had been Peggy’s undoing. The absence of contrition would have been insufferable enough, but then he’d actually wanted a divorce. That had apparently toppled Peggy’s view of reality.
Peggy had spent hours in tears in the office of her priest. The members of her prayer group had prayed for her every day, one of them had knitted a prayer shawl for her, and everyone in the parish knew about it -- because Peggy had told them all -- and everyone knew the evil that Robert Rivera had done to Peggy. And still he had not repented, not changed his mind; still, he wanted a divorce.
When she had exhausted herself by sharing all this information, she thought she should show some interest in the companion with whom she was sharing. Diana was a counselor? What a coincidence -- that’s exactly the field Peggy wanted to enter. She hadn’t worked after she married. She explained that she felt she should be at home with the children, and after they were all in school, she felt she should be there when they came home. She thought briefly of telling Diana that, after all, she was the president of the National Rod Davis Fan Club, the star of “The Bedington Family,” but something told her not to mention that accomplishment, achieved only after years of faithful participation in the chat room. Anyway, now she was going to have to go to work. That meant school. Her parents would help, but it was Robert’s responsibility, really, not theirs. And she had always wanted to be a counselor, she said, and felt that her experience with rearing children had prepared her. Years of intimate experience with the problems of “The Bedington Family” had also prepared her, she thought, but she didn’t mention that. Too bad, she said, that becoming a certified counselor meant years of study, when actually real life experience was so much better.
And Diana listened with a compassion that Peggy would not have understood. She had noted Peggy’s long, stringy hair, the old football jersey and filthy athletic shoes. Her appearance bespoke neglect, and her chewed nails revealed anxiety. When Peggy told her about the suffering she’d endured by her husband’s demanding nature, Diana knew the suffering was real. Peggy explained that she couldn’t clean the house as her husband wanted her to because she thought that raising her children was more important, yet despite all her sacrifice, he complained and criticized. And finally he’d gone too far. He had an affair. She made it sound as if the divorce had been her decision, not Robert’s. Oddly, it was never the affair that she cited as the reason for the impending divorce -- it was her husband’s bullying: “Do this, do that. Why can’t you at least cook dinner? The house is filthy and you do nothing all day but watch soap operas.”
They had lunch together. “The thing is, really, I would have forgiven him….” Peggy continued over the French onion soup, “if he’d only had the humility to ask. That’s all.”
“But he didn’t want your forgiveness?” asked Diana, gently.
“No….” Peggy answered, bemused by the question, her musing interrupted when Jean the concierge came to their table.
“Mrs. Rivera? I think you had an appointment for counseling this morning?”
“Yes. But that’s all right. I’ll schedule again later.”
“That’s fine, but if you could, please let us know when you need to cancel or change an appointment. The brothers have a rather tight schedule.” She smiled at them.
“Well, of all the nerve….” said Peggy when Jean had left.
They had dinner together, and afterwards, sat in the parlor where Peggy talked some more. Having at last exhausted the description of her suffering, she now asked Diana questions -- questions that wanted Diana’s opinions -- about politics, religion, the media, what books or films Diana liked. And each opinion found an identical mate in Peggy’s own opinions. Peggy was discovering all the things she thought about everything in Diana’s opinions. She dug into her fabric bag and found a small piece of paper and a pencil stub. She wanted Diana’s address in Atlanta, her phone number, her email address. When she finally went to bed that night, she slept soundly, peacefully, as though reality was returning, and she began to suspect that she could handle Robert, after all.
The next morning Peggy did not meet her for breakfast. Diana looked for her in the chapel, the parlor, even the woodland paths -- though Peggy would certainly not have gone there on her own. At lunch, Peggy came breezing into the dining room. She’d gone into the little town at the bottom of the hill and had her hair cut into a pageboy style. She’d also bought some suede boots and a couple of new sweaters.
“I didn’t tell you what I was going to do,” she said, patting her new hairstyle, eager to know if Diana liked it. I wanted to surprise you!” she laughed, happy with Diana’s enthusiastic approval. She showed her new things to Diana with the excitement of a teenager. “How do you think this green looks on me? I’ve never worn green. I didn’t have the money -- but there’s always plastic, you know. And Robert is still paying the bills. I thought I should give him a few more to pay before the divorce,” she said with happy laughter.
Diana asked if Peggy wanted to go for a walk with her, but Peggy said she was tired from her shopping and wanted to lie down for a while.
So Diana went to the chapel instead. She tried to pray for Peggy. She had often tried to pray for her own clients, but the fact was that she couldn’t pray at all. She could only feel her words echo into emptiness, rejected. She stared at the brown wood of the crucifix. It was silent.
Peggy met her for dinner wearing her new green sweater. She talked, but the talk was less animated. The air of desperation seemed to have vanished. Now she talked about the isolation of the retreat, how some people might regard it as healthy, but she herself did not. She thought that involvement with others -- with family, with friends -- was healthier, and she believed that people who were alone contributed nothing to the lives of others. They were simply selfish.
That night Peggy dreamed of herself as a single woman, confident, a professional of some kind -- maybe a counselor. Everyone respected and admired her. Her children were proud of her. Robert begged her to take him back, but she refused. The strong woman in her dreams pitied him and wished him well.
Diana didn’t see Peggy at breakfast. After reading for a while in the parlor, she asked Jean about her.
“Oh, she checked out early this morning. She’s gone back to Tampa. Sure didn’t stay long. It’s too quiet here for some people.”
The following February Diana returned to Fern River. She walked through the woods again, shuffling the dry dead leaves with the toes of her boots. The undergrowth had died back, the density of the forest was gone, and it was as empty as the desert trees in her dream. All the leaves had gone from the trees; they were stripped bare now, their naked arms stretched outward against the bright cloudless blue of the winter sky, like the small wooden crucifix in the chapel. It’s a different kind of beauty, she thought, and lifted her face to the sun.