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Peacham’s Autumn (Part Two)



Now he notices the hills have turned to soft breasts in the fading light,
comely, buxom and alluring.
But the chill sunset spikes the forests
with gasping tongues of shivering dark red.
The copses turn black and blue with cold, bruised.

Mr. Peacham hears his brown cows lowing.
Their dripping noses issue tendrils of vapor as illusive as the shorelines.
The neighbors have departed their fields for the warmth of the kitchen,
bequeathing the land to their sheep and goats and cows.
The horses shift slightly as he trudges back to his Victorian white clapboard,
its mildewed eaves embroidered with ecclesiastical curlicues.
There’s a whiff of hemlock and wet leather in the fall air.
His old and scruffy farm cat, Rags, trails him in a hesitant, neuralgic stride.
Her coat is a pin cushion of gorse and errant straw,
laced with torn cobwebs and shavings of leaves.
Approaching the porch, he passes by the iron hay rake,
next to the stone wall opposite the house.
He runs his thumbs up and down under his suspenders as he gains the steps.

Ma Peacham has lighted the cook stove.
Washday is done, the beef stew is simmering, she got in most of the apples today.
She sets two bowls on the table, adjusts her glasses, pours the steaming tea.
Fleshy skin droops from her swollen arms and elbows as she ladles the stew.
He mumbles grace, she murmurs amen,
Rags mews weakly over a saucer of raw cow’s milk.
They commune in silence, chewing gingerly, wary of tender gums.
Tomorrow, Mrs. Peacham will get busy with the cider press
and the last bushel of apples. Then she can slop down the back porch.
Pa ponders cutting the grass at the cemetery for the final time before winter.
He’s pleased the last hay crop is in, he enjoys the satisfying sense of completion.
When his sexton’s chores are done tomorrow, he’ll shovel out more silage.

Ma —
he’s always called her Ma despite (or because of?) their childlessness —
rubs Rags, who has settled in her lap as she sips her tea.
Pa cleans his teeth with his handkerchief.
The wood fire crackles reassuringly.

Moonrise sets in.
She pours them a little more tea
and they retire to their armchairs in the parlor,
where she has already brought in the papers for him.
Settling in, Farmer Peacham recalls, for no particular reason,
the last hitch of the day, which he finished just before vespers.
He guesses it was a fitting end to his diurnal labors.
Mrs. Peacham wonders when he’ll get around to shoring up the maple sugarhouse, though they won’t unlumber it ‘til March.
She yearns for the delicious scent of the steam that rises
from the moiling, frothing maple sap
during its reduction to syrup in the long narrow copper pans.
The steam is a comfort.
The spiraling vapor envelops her body,
warding off winter’s marrow-curdling freeze.
Oh, what she would give to skip winter’s desolation
and proceed straight to the sugarbush and the tender shoots of spring.
She hardens her heart against her desire
and wanders back to the cook stove to replenish their tea.

Billowing clouds tatter the moonrise,
and Mr. Peacham recalls those visions of indiscernible shorelines
he thought he saw earlier on his way back to the house.
Had he caught a glimpse of a phantom moon pinnace
sailing the autumn littoral?

The chatter of the barn swallows is stilled.
The stone walls and outcrops of granite have night to themselves.

As he dozes in his armchair,
Silas Peacham hears his heart whisper that he isn’t plumb sure there’s a God at all.
He stirs uneasily and the newspapers rustle in his lap, like fallen leaves.
Half asleep, he cups his arthritic fingers prayerfully for reassurance
and nestles deeper into the chair.
Whether there’s a God or not,
a man won’t go far wrong if he obeys the Ten Commandments,
his dream confides.

The iron hay rake stands stalwart in the meadow,
bathed in autumn dew,
rugged, upright and reticent.

Part Two of “Peacham’s Autumn” by Paul Mann continued from Oct. 18 edition


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