The first thing I noticed crossing the New Hampshire line on my return to Maine was that the landscape had gone all Wyeth in my absence: gray and moody — and harsh.
The trees, stripped of leaves that had just been turning to gold and red when I left to go back to Massachusetts for surgery and friends to help in the aftermath, were bare and anorexic as toothpicks poked into the countryside. Here and there, it was still possible to see a hump of the season’s first snow hanging on despite temperatures near 60 degrees. The clumps, white with a tinge of blackened soot or road gravel, were almost the same shape as the flock of swans I had seen on the morning I left Cape Cod in the rear view mirror and steered back to my rented A-frame cabin north of Gray.
The sky had clouded over in Portsmouth, but by the time I passed Kittery, the weather’s mood had leveled out, even brightened considerably. The warmth seemed more suited to the shore of the bay along which I had spent several weeks in a little cottage recovering, waiting like a wolf with its paw in a steel trap, steadily going mad, craving escape.
My friends — and for the time, caretakers — were attentive and relieved in the extreme that they were sending me off to Maine intact, rather than with a partly healed ankle and a broken arm or leg, so sure they were I couldn’t hold still long enough for healing and would end up hurting myself, hurrying the process.
But the clumsy, hard plastic moon boot in which the surgeon’s assistant had encased my foot, ankle and calf had slowed me down considerably. Though I was mostly using it with the pretense of relying on a cane that I would have done better wielding as a weapon than as a stick for support, I hadn’t suffered any major setbacks — for once — by suffering from a type-A personality.
In the end, the surgeon agreed to set me free to come back to the real country of Maine — a description I mean in every sense of the word — turning me over to the prescribed ministrations of physical therapists here.
Driving down the back roads outside Yarmouth, I made all the mental rearrangements of returning. I had left behind a gathering of six swans at dawn, but the flock I flew by on my way home was larger — about 25 sheep grazing so placidly that they seemed a mirage of meditation. At last, the long white fences of Pineland appeared, and I knew I was almost home.
I nearly missed the spot, though. The dirt driveway back into the forest, where the cabin sits atop the suggestion of a rock outcropping, was camouflaged with fallen leaves, so completely that I could hardly decipher where wild nature ended and human nature began. I relied for guidance on the sentinel presence of the neighbor’s home and the old green mailbox at the side of the road, the house numbers out of sync, jumping from the low 200s to the high 100s, then back up over 220 once more.
But this improbable margin is the small, irregular envelope of land in which I have placed the correspondence of my life for the time being, so I slipped right in among the tatters of maple and oak on the ground and crept along slowly, calling on barely established memory for the course back into the woods.
I slowed to a stop by the shed and took stock of things. The landlord’s brother had been by to deliver and stack a half cord of wood: It lay as tidy as Lincoln logs under the lean-to. The landlord had driven down from up north to clean the chimney and install a pipe for the wood stove; that, too, was ready to go. He even had replaced a couple rotting boards on the deck, awakening in me the winter dreamer’s visions of freshly painted planks in spring.
It was somber as abandonment at the cabin, the only stirrings the fretful flight of a few moths, tearing at the air and ripping apart the last moments of their lives. But I felt no sorrow arriving.
Indoors, I could read a little recent history in the blinking faces of digital clocks, and after I got my belongings indoors, I cleared out the freezer and any perishables that might have gone without sufficient refrigeration while the power was down. I kept an eye out for signs of mice establishing new territory, but either denial or luck won out, and I decided we still had the place to ourselves, the dog and I.
The dog. I wondered how she’d make the transition back inland, since she has spent most of her short life in love with the sea, swimming Nantucket Sound until she was just a dot on the bay’s horizon to onlookers ashore. But animals are better at managing memory and sentimentality than we are; she clung to no sense of loss. When I looked out into the yard, I saw her on her back, rolling her spine into the land like a signature. It went on and on, this twisting joy: Here I am, here I am.
In the last, least light of the day, the color of the birches had gone to mauve as the minutes passed. I had never seen the white bark surrender itself in just that way before, and it seemed suddenly, softly, the subdued blush of welcome. This is the color of home, it seemed to murmur.
This is the way trees become improbable candles to light your way or serve as dropped pennants on the stilled battlefield of your life. Rest now, rest here. This is where you belong.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: