September 22nd was a perfect day.
The leaves had started to turn, and trees enclosing the narrow road up to Mountain Hollow looked like they were on fire. When Maria first came this way, more than sixty years ago, only a narrow, unpaved trail connected the farm to the outside world. There were deep ruts in it, and it had lain unused for so long that high grass and saplings were consuming it. Maria was recuperating in these hills, recovering from a long illness I'd never learned the specifics of but assumed was psychological. My aunt Lila had drown the year before Maria's “illness” began, and the way Maria avoided the subject of her sickness it was clear she felt ashamed off it. So she came upstate for the summer, and spent her days hiking her way to better health. I had inherited her journals, along with the house, and when she wrote of first stumbling across this overgrown path it was almost as if it was calling to her. So she changed direction and followed it two miles back into the hills. That was when she first saw it.
The farm had been abandoned for more than two decades, the fallow fields slowly swallowed up by long banished trees. For some reason, looking at that ruin, Maria had fallen instantly in love. She had come home. Listening to her tell it, Maria hadn't found the farm...it had found her, and in her heart at least she never left the mountain again.
On a day like that day, anyone could see why. Sunlight slanted through boughs of golden leaves as the road wound steadily along the banks of a fast moving stream. The stream bed descended the mountain in steps, forming a long series of clear pools and tumbling waterfalls. All around, the hills rose up defensively, shutting out the rest of the world. There was just you, the forest, and rare glimpses of a perfect blue sky. I had the windows rolled down and the air was that perfect, impossible balance between just warm enough and cool enough to be crisp, the kind of weather you see in a New York autumn maybe just a half dozen days a year. It was beautiful.
But still, I felt that same sick twinge around that final bend.
The road turned unexpectedly and quite sharply there, rising in a great scythe of a curve. It had always been a treacherous thing, that turn. It had taken lives.
As always, Denise watched my expression closely as I entered the bend. As always, I tried to make my face an expressionless mask. As always, my heart pounded and my throat went dry. No matter how many times I drove it, it was always the same.
Then, suddenly, we were free of it. The sky opened up, dazzling. The forest fell back from the house, leaving a large slope of emerald grass. I used to hate that lawn, being left with the responsibility of having to mow the damn thing with my grandmother's ancient push-mower. As soon as Mountain Hollow became mine, I bought a comfortable riding mower for it.
We drove under the gate, with the wrought iron "Mountain Hollow" sign my uncle had given Maria for one of her birthdays. Beyond stretched a long, straight drive, between parallel lines of towering poplars my grandfather had planted decades before I entered the world.
That day, driving up the road, I think I saw Mountain Hollow the way Maria had first seen it, all those years ago. It was only a picture in my head, but it was so vivid it nearly supplanted what actually lay before me.
No poplars then, no white picket fence. Just a forlorn and abandoned ruin lingering under a dazzling summer sun. She must have fought her way through the high grass and tangled briars. The fields would have been full of buzzing grasshoppers and those wild raspberries she loved so much.
The apple orchard was there, then, and the pond brimming with frogs. But the barn must have been collapsing in upon itself, buckling under its own weight, wood rotting and beams exposed. An army of field mice called it home. The empty stables, long deprived of any livestock, might still have been filled with the lingering scent of manure, and gray papery nests of wasps buzzing treacherously in the shadowy corners of the ceiling.
Climbing out of my car, I experienced the eeriest of feelings, something akin to déjà vu. I found myself wondering if, sixty years before, Maria had stood where I was standing now. Had she, in her mind's eye, seen the neatly rebuilt and painted barn, the trimmed lawn, and the ruined stables converted into the mountain cabin that I saw now? As I stood seeing what was, did she see what would be, and did the lines of our vision cross each other somewhere in time?
It was almost like staring at each other.
And nearly in unison, separated by those many decades, Maria and I whispered "I'm home."