Thursday, September 17, 2009
I have grilled trout and cold white wine for breakfast, in a tavern off the road somewhere between the two old mills—first Aldie Mill, before Champe Ford, and then an 18th-century gristmill on a slow green river. It’s after one o’clock by then, on Sunday afternoon; I’ve been too taken by the rambling little road to stop, even for photographs.
I’ve driven recklessly, with one hand scribbling down the poetry of the signs in this Virginia horse country. Dominion Saddlery, ferrier supplies, names that are like the down-to-earth odes of the Roman Horace—Goose Creek, Pidgeon Hill, Goat Hill, Crums Church, Lemmons Bottom, and funny Beeline Drive.
There have been pastures with long dry-stone running walls, the color of honey; beautiful leggy thoroughbreds; a small white plane sitting wing-deep in an overgrown meadow. The October light is dappled and the leaves on all the unfamiliar trees just beginning to turn. All of the eastern trees whose names I don’t know or have half forgotten—hickory, linden, sugar maple, larch, dogwood, black walnut, wild cherry. . . another list. And roadside stands with local cider apples and Amish pumpkins.
Here, though, finally, I have to stop—in this village between the mills.
I’m torn; I cross the side road twice, and back, irresolutely. I want to eat at the Red Fox Inn, for its name and its cherry red door with a fox-head knocker. But a tavern . . . it will be appropriately rustic, not so formal. Perfect for the day. There’s the fish, too— Chesapeake rainbow trout—handwritten on a chalkboard on the tavern’s wooden porch; and wine from vineyards somewhere nearby, in the foothills of the Appalachians. I’ve made my choice, though feeling just a little wistful for the dapper Red Fox. What might I be missing?
Others are eating eggs. With crab, with local smoked ham or bacon. Lunch at the roadside tavern after church, before the hunt races I’ve seen posted in a shop window, behind panes of slightly irregular glass.
I see another posted notice when I go out. Sunday, October 5—today—Saint Francis of Assissi Day at the James River Episcopal Church. There, now, right across the road from me, in this particular block of the meandering country road where I’ve happened to stop— the Blessing of the Animals. People coming up the path outside the ruddy brick church in the lazy afternoon sunlight, bringing their spaniels, their dim-sighted old Airedale terriers; one child and father carrying between them a brown rabbit in a cage.
“Will he be frightened?” the girl wants to know.
I’ve missed nothing, I understand. Absolutely everything is here.
I turn on every light when I come in, against the lowering eastern night, the failing year. One by one, every lamp I can find. The bulb inside the garnet-red hurricane glass, that turns on with a kind of ornate key; the lamp with the dull, tobacco-colored shade on the glass-ringed wooden desk; the reading light over the quilted bed (thankfully bright, more than expected); and then even the bathroom light, because it is October and the sun has gone too utterly—sunk plumb, deep, silent, as into the stagnant pond below the inn that shows no sign of trout now, though trout were promised. Not a glimmer. They would be sullen, anyway, heavy, if there were any there. It makes me shudder thinking what the taste of muddy hopelessness would be in them, the fish once slight and quick and iridescent.
I drink Moroccan mint tea from a bathroom glass, deliciously cold. I left the bottle in ice while I went out looking for the walking trails the map showed down from the old inn. After skirting the pond they took off up again into the woods, across hilly pastures, looping around along the fence-line, to springs which I never found. On a grassy rise thick with wild white yarrow I came upon a red clay tennis court, abandoned; and higher up, among the feral trees, a ruined house, its openings caved in upon themselves.
Coming back at nightfall, it has felt to me entirely deserted, this purplish brick inn from 1850 with its clean white trim. Most of it is shuttered, closed for the season now, during the middle of the week.
I go down to dinner, in the glassed-in porch pooling with candles, the night just beyond. Holed up snugly against the autumn darkness, as in a boat. Only two other tables are occupied—one by the two women who came in asking about a room after I was given my room key, late afternoon, when the light was still seductive.
“We saw your sign up on the road, and thought we’d poke our heads in . . .” Two women around sixty, out rambling the countryside (for antiques, birds? planning a book?); lonely together, somehow. Maybe with grown-up kids they never see, looking for something. Or with a lifetime of quarrelsome companionship between them. And at the far end of the dining room a party of six, older, rich, talking about the ingredients of rum cake, and of sailing the canals of Burgundy in a barge.
I eat a delicious spicy crab soup, with crab from Chesapeake Bay, and look at the reflections of the candles in the greenhouse glass, remembering an inn somewhere on the other coast years and years ago, where I went with the stranger who was my husband, feeling caught in the wrong life, longing to be by myself with a good pair of walking shoes and a couple of Dorothy Sayers mysteries. A working boat harbor, it was, with dark woods close around. Redwoods and evergreens, pushing and pushing in. It scared me that the road went no further from there. The road dead-ended at the oily landlocked harbor in the woods. I feel the panic even now.
“It was dreadful in Barcelona,” one of the rich old men is saying. “You can’t imagine. The tour leader fell asleep on the bus.”
Another white-haired man who looks a little like my father makes me sad. He doesn’t talk at all, or even seem to listen much. He’s deaf, maybe, and so excluded from the others’ conversations. Or, sadder—just dull, without stories. I look at him and think where I would be if I hadn’t gotten out of that marriage. Where I would be now, with the winter coming on, the dark pressing against the lighted room, the inn on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains where I’ve come with camera and maps and notebook and my stash of Peet’s Sumatra coffee. I feel the cold glass, the chilly yellow circles of the candles not warming but seeming to melt holes through to the other side.
I’m grateful to be in the right company, now that it’s all closing in; closing us in with just ourselves, with what we’ve done and been and nothing more, that’s it, that's all there'll be: the black pond mute of trout, of skimming dragonflies and glancing green. The standing water absolutely mute.