Updated: Jul 16, 2020
It began on the first cool day of the coldest winter we would have in decades. It would be a winter of snow and hard work just to keep warm. My oldest brother, two younger sisters and I would carry in more than a ton apiece of firewood that year. The time was not long before one could set a thermostat to fight the cold, but no matter how short the distance between the next inventions for making life easier the hardness of life remains in that short distance in between. We would look back on that winter, talk about how cold it was, how much more snow there was than before or since but I would remember it for another reason. It was the winter a fire began in my heart, a fire that I wouldn’t feel the warmth of until many years later.
A difficult life can make for a stronger heart and a stronger heart for stronger loves. My family, the Southlands always finished the day with honest praises and criticisms, shortcomings forgiven and forgotten and God thanked for whatever part He played in our lives that day. Maybe it’s been this way a long time but I’ve learned we seldom realize how a seed containing the mystery of a life, a life unlike any before or after, can be planted in a human heart in an instant. Maybe saddest of all human shortcomings is most mysteries don’t survive past childhood. Mine did not die though I almost pulled it up by the roots and cast it upon the rocks years after it had already yielded a bountiful harvest. Such is the foolishness of men.
The seed containing my mystery, I call it mine but no mystery of a life cannot not be shared, was planted in me that cool day just before I turned nine. It dropped hints that began to sprout that same day though it was years before I saw them. Not only did it drop hints of when it began but like all things blessed with life it gave birth to other mysteries spreading its branches till I could not get from beneath its shade. Thank God it will now continue to unravel its threads forever. I will get to it quick enough but understand as the mystery of a life unravels it weaves that life. A life knit with even the best efforts and intents is certainly not without hardships because there is no such thing. However trials and tribulations, mistakes and sins need not destroy the garment of one’s existence, but rather dye it with the colors of wisdom. You can be sure that without divine help we can kill a mystery making it useful only as a shroud for regret. To my knowledge, I had only one regret and God turned that regret into wisdom.
The beginning of mine and Rachel’s friendship began a few years after William W. Hanover moved quietly into our community into an old house down the road a piece. William was always called Mr. Hanover, never Bill or William by any and none knew what the W. stood for. There was not one member of our small community that came to know him well, though most tried. The women brought him cakes and cookies all of which he accepted graciously and always with less than a dozen words. The men hung back after the few who welcomed him received nothing more than a “Thank you.” They followed up the ‘thank you’ with, “Should you need any help with anything, most any of us will be glad to give you a hand, Mr. Hanover,” which fished from Mr. Hanover, “I surely will.” My Dad called Mr. Hanover, “…a pond lean of social aptitude and that such leanness is unusual for a gardener.” Mr. Hanover would speak most graciously but one might as well try to pull a chicken’s back teeth as try and hold a conversation with him.
It seemed to us William Hanover spent virtually all his daylight hours in his garden. It was this penchant for his garden along with the beauty of that well-tended plot which earned him the title The Gardener. Jessica Baling had long held the honor of being unsurpassed at coaxing the best from the soil and is said to have wept at having lost that honor. Anyway because The Gardener was rarely seen clean shaven we who were not yet adults christened his middle initial Whiskers. As solitary as Whiskers was, he was seen to have visitors fairly often who were total strangers to the rest of us. There was a lot of speculation as to who the strangers were. The two most popular assumptions were out-of-town relatives and buyers of produce, though no one ever saw anyone leaving with vegetables. For that matter no one ever saw Mr. Hanover’s visitors come or go. It was me, Joseph Bartholomew Southland, at the early age of eight who unknowingly correctly guessed them to be angels. Of course no one believes eight year olds sufficient to be right about much of anything. And even I discarded the idea until… well, you’ll see.
Mr. Hanover wasn’t a short man but those who visited him were a little taller and lighter in color as Whiskers always carried a tan. However, there were times those who visited had skin almost as black as the ebony keys on Mama’s piano. And though many tried to eavesdrop on Mr. Hanover’s conversations with the strangers not a word could be clearly discerned. What could be seen was a lot of smiling, some pats on the back and laughter. Suffice it to say Whiskers’ visitors though apparently as benign as his gardening did not set well with the residents of our small town.
I never knew for certain but I believe Whiskers Hanover was planting flowers on that cool fall day Rachel Friendship and I began to know each other. A northerly breeze kept the sweat at bay for the first time in months, the sun shown brightly not dimmed by summer humidity, the leaves were still turning yet to reach their full splendor, and the migratory birds were drifting south. As I mentioned before I was just about to turn nine years old. Not that I didn’t know of Rachel. She was a grade behind me in school. She and her family lived I thought far enough away that we would never cross paths. I knew Rachel Friendship the way one knows Venus. You know its there and if you make a special effort you can see it. And like Venus might last in one’s thoughts for a few seconds so it was with me concerning Rachel.
I had just taken in my last picking of vegetables from our garden. Mama said my time was my own till supper to do with what I wanted. I ran through the garden that was showing neglect, past the ragged scarecrow dressed in one of my dad’s worn out shirts and pair of faded overalls into our meadow. Grasshoppers, bugs of all sorts with and without wings, and butterflies scattered. I chased a few then ran between the huge pines on a forest floor carpeted with pine needles. Where the pine forest ended was a small bank. I jumped with arms spread wide, landed on damp soil and sprinted around the place we kept our milk. I was about to delight in the solitude of my most favorite place in the world when I saw her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She sat in the exact spot I had claimed as mine, with feet dangling just so she could tap the running water with the toe of her boots. She was whistling something and shaking the pony tail back and forth as if she owned my spot. Rachel had on some lace up boots that reached just above her ankles, white socks with lace around the top and a long sleeve cotton dress with small flowers all over it. Lace matching her socks trimmed the sleeves and neckline of her dress.
Without turning she said, “Heard you coming way back, Bartholomew. You always make a lot of noise? How you gonna sneak on anybody making so much noise?”
“How’d you know my name?” I walked up behind her and crossed my arms, not a little angry at having my territory invaded. If she’d been a boy… well you know how spirited eight year old boys can be. If he had refused to remove himself from my spot we’d both went home muddy. Regardless who had stolen my place, I intended to get it back. “And what cha’ you doing in my spot?”
“It’s the only place in the world I call mine and you’re in it.”
She turned and looked at me. It wasn’t a frown as much as it was an expression of curiosity. “They all said you’re odd.”
It would be later I understood what happened that day. I compared the color of her eyes to that blue sky and was reminded of her freckles when Mama sprinkled a cake with those colored beads of sugar. Not that she had colored freckles of course; it was just how much prettier the sprinkles made the cake. Actually I was taken back when I did think of Rachel Friendship when Mama finished decorating that cake because it had been some time since I had seen her, a year or so at least.
Anyway beside the branch that day she looked at me for a short spell with those pretty blue eyes. Ignoring her remark that I was odd I shrugged an emphatic, ‘You need to move or else, girl or not.”
“Awright, Bartholomew, do you mind if I make me a place to sit next to yours,” she asked. Still looking at me, she tilted her head ever so slightly and her expression… she might as well had been my old hound dog begging for my biscuit in the way he knew I could never turn him down. She patted a spot next to mine.
“I’ll get some pine straw for you to sit on,” I said. We sat and talked until I heard Mama calling me to supper. What did we talk about? I can only remember some of it and none of it seemed much until I got home for supper and Mama asked me where I’d gone. “Down to the spring,” I said hoping that would be enough. It was the first time I had ever not wanted to share something with Mama, well not quite the first time, but it’s the only time I can remember before turning nine.
During supper Mama kind of looked at me as if she thought I might be lying or at least hiding something. Somehow Mamas and Dads can tell when something in their kids begins to change them to adults. Mama glanced at me a few times during supper making me a little fidgety but she didn’t ask me anything else and I didn’t see Rachel Friendship for almost two months except at school. The way she kept away from me at school you would’ve thought I had the plague. And at the time, I was glad of it.
It had already gotten cold and stayed cold which was really unusual for us, and all the adults were saying before this winter’s over we’ll get a snow. Some said they had seen hornet’s nest built lower to the ground than ever before in their life time. Some mentioned the huge number of spiders in the fall was a sure sign of a coming winter colder than normal. I hadn’t seen any hornet’s nest but our meadow out back had been covered in what seemed millions of spider webs. Then the snow came. We went to bed the night before the snow started and I can remember Daddy standing on the front porch staring at the sky and Mama asking him, “Clouds looking like snow, Boy?” I never heard her call him anything but, Boy. Where he got that name I never knew. “Could be tonight,” he said.
The next morning there was over a foot of snow. I was determined to get to my favorite place in the world down by the spring to see what it looked like covered in snow. I bundled up, took off through the garden, past the scarecrow, picked up speed through the pine thicket where the snow was not quite as deep and jumped as far as I could off the bank. When I got to my spot there were footprints where someone had come from downstream then went off at an angle that would take them to Whisker Hanover’s house. It was obvious someone had slid down the bank into the mud and in the mud, just barely visible as most of it was buried was the top of a pull-over boot. I guessed who it might belong to and decided to see if it was Rachel Friendship who had disturbed the snow on my spot before I could get there.
I was almost where I could see Whisker’s house when I saw Rachel. Her head was down and she was crying. When I got to her she looked at me then looked down at her foot. She had on one boot. “I can’t feel my foot,” she said. “I thought I was going to your house but I got lost. I lost my boot back at your spot near the spring. I stepped in mud and it pulled off…”
We were much closer to Whisker Hanover’s house than mine and I knew we had to get Rachel’s foot warm as quickly as possible. I pulled off her wet sock, pulled off one of my boots and put my socks and boot on her bare foot. “We’re going to Whisker’s house,” I said. “He’s the closest. And we need to run.”
We topped the hill behind Whisker’s house and were running toward it when he came out the back door. We met him about fifty yards from his house where he caught Rachel in his arms and carried her the rest of the way.
He fed us some warm hot chocolate and rounded up me a pair of socks and an old boot. Whiskers didn’t say much until the color had returned to our feet. “It was a mighty good thing what you did, Joseph,” he said while looking at Rachel. “She could have very well lost that foot.” He looked at me. “I’ve got something I’d like to show you two. It might not mean a thing to either of you ever, but then who knows. It’s outside and in the direction of your house, Joseph where I expect you’ll be taking Rachel so you and your Dad can get her home safe.” Whisker had never said so much to anybody we knew.
Rachel looked at me and I at her neither of us saying anything as we got up to follow him outside. He put on a light coat.
We walked to the edge of his snow-covered garden most distant from his house.
“Can you believe it?” he said staring at a rose. It was a small plant with not more than a dozen leaves and a single red blossom in full bloom at the top. The snow was melted back from it near to my remembrance a good eight to ten inches. “It can only mean something special is going on.”
We waited for him to tell us what the special thing going on was but instead he looked at me and said, “I’m giving you this rose, Joseph, on one condition. You can only come and get this rose when you can give it to someone who’ll let you keep it.”
That made as about much sense to me as going fishing without a hook but I simply nodded my head. Whiskers knew I didn’t understand. Rather than try to explain anything he added to both Rachel’s and my confusion by saying, “There is some wisdom we use to seal vows of friendship from where I’m from.” I wanted to ask him where he was from but… well I had just about to turn nine and he was old and… well… Rachel and I just listened. Whiskers said, “As long as love between us is enough to warm our hearts the coldness of the world’s hatreds will never come between us. Say it to me, Joseph, just like I said it to you.”
I did. Then he looked at Rachel and told her to say it to him just like he had said it and she did. Then he had me say it to Rachel and then Rachel say it to me.
“Now maybe you both will remember it.” Then he said, “You better get her home, Joseph. Her parents are looking for her.” Whiskers turned without another word and went back to his house.
We got to my house and told Mama and Dad what happened except about the rose and then we got Rachel home and told them what happened except about the rose. We never told anyone, not anyone, about the rose. Rachel’s Mama and Dad wouldn’t let her go out alone again that winter so we never got to go and see the rose together till later, but I did go and look at it off and on. It snowed a few more times but never on that rose. Except for a few more leaves and a little taller the rose looked the same every time. After it began to warm Rachel and I did go together to look at it but the number of visits declined over the years. Life gets busy, each day crowding the thoughts it requires into our minds, forcing others on a shelf till some brief, quiet moment. For teenagers, quiet moments are rare.
Rachel’s last name seemed to dictate my relationship with her through my teens, our friendship growing without me ever considering it to be nothing more. Technology surrounding the internal combustion engine and electricity began to accelerate at a pace that my Dad said put the nose of every decent husband with a Proverbs thirty-one wife to the grindstone.
It was a cold day a month or so past my seventeenth birthday and I was sitting in my spot near the spring thinking about what Whiskers Hanover had said about giving me that rose. I was getting to the age that contemplation companioned with solitude was becoming as pleasurable as chasing baby rabbits had been. “You can only come and get this rose when you can give it to someone who’ll let you keep it.” It’s strange to me we can more often than not remember what doesn’t make sense to us better than what does. Anyway I wanted the rose that could melt snow but I didn’t have anyone to give it to that I knew would let me keep it. From a few feet behind me I heard, “Bartholomew.”
“Hey Rachel,” I said without turning to look at her. There were a few times I went to ‘our place’ when she didn’t show but mostly she was either there or came shortly after. We talked about everything and everybody but spoke less and less over the years about Hanover’s rose. But it was still there with that one red blossom that by some botanical miracle persisted through the seasons. She would sometimes ask if I’d found someone to give it to that would let me keep it. Of course the answer was always, “Not yet.”
“What cha’ thinking about Bartholomew,” she asked sitting down in her spot.
Hanover was looking older and though no one would have believed it possible had become even more solitary. His visitors still came as always but we humans can get so acquainted with the greatest and most glorious mysteries, like a sunrise for instance, we ignore it as common altogether. Especially if we force ourselves to believe we have come to fully understand it. My Dad used to say there’s not a thing we fully understand. He was right of course. Anyway it had evolved into a collective acceptance that Hanover’s visitors were indeed relatives and friends of relatives who made certain not to encounter any of us while coming to and departing from their visits. It was decided the Hanovers were a whole family of eccentrics; eccentrics being a less harsh term than what was being said by those feeling the Hanover’s refusal to share their lives was their way of saying, ‘we’re better than ya’ll.’ Enough days of grownup responsibilities along with some well-placed ridicule had flattened my child-like wonder and curiosity so that I had abandoned my assessment that they were angels and accepted the collective belief. Still there was the mystery of the rose. And still neither Rachel nor I had told anyone about the rose. Who would believe it?
I looked over at Rachel. She had pulled her blond hair into that pony tail I liked, her freckles were as pretty as ever and her eyes sparkled the way they did when she had an idea she meant to put into action. “What cha’ got in mind, Ms. Friendship?”
“You’ve been thinking about Hanover’s rose.”
“Don’t you find it odd that we think about it almost at the same times?”
“Didn’t know we did?”
“Well we do, Bartholomew. I thought you knew. I’ve noticed that every time, well not every time but almost every time I’ve asked you what you’ve been thinking about whether it’s Hanover’s rose or not we’ve been thinking the same thing. Anyway, Hanover said you couldn’t have that rose unless you gave it to somebody who’d let you keep it. We’ve been as dumb as a box of rocks, Bartholomew. You can give me that rose and I’ll let you keep it.”
I laughed out loud. “You’re right and I love you Rachel Friendship.” When I said that it seemed all of nature went quiet. Rachel looked me straight in the eye.
“You mean that, Bartholomew?”
Women know a lot of things before us men, especially if we’re young men. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
Rachel kissed me on the cheek and said, “Let’s go get that rose.”
When we got to Hanover’s rose he was there waiting on us. “Finally figured it out did you, Bartholomew?”
I looked at Rachel. Hanover smiled and said nothing till we’d dug the rose up and planted it in a clay pot he gave us as we’d forgotten to bring anything to put it in.
“You two will be getting married soon, Bartholomew. Things in both your families have gotten a little off course. You two will have to bring things back in line. It’ll take a little while, be patient. This rose is not to be replanted in the earth until things are back to traveling in the right direction.”
It was as if Whiskers Hanover had saved up his words over the years for this day. I don’t remember everything he said because he talked to us about what a marriage is for, my obligations and Rachel’s, what to expect and on and on for what seemed like hours. He did tell us to buy an electric freezer, a small one to put the rose in until it came time to replant it in the earth.
We left Hanover’s that day, told our parents I had proposed, Rachel had accepted and we wanted an electric freezer for a wedding gift. Whiskers put a For Sale sign up in his yard, paid my dad to look after the place and show it to potential buyers. It was a family from up north that finally bought and became, much to the relief of the community, friendly neighbors. The money Hanover paid my dad was more than enough to buy the freezer.
Rachel and I settled into the marriage, I got a job and we had a girl, Sara Ann then a boy, Joshua Dan. Rachel and I would check on the rose in the freezer on special occasions just to see. It stayed the same until Sara Ann was a little over four and Joshua Dan two and half. It was the week my job carried me out of town.
When I came home Rachel met me at the door. Her eyes were red from crying, her expression a mix of anger and sadness.
“I want to show you something, Bartholomew.” She turned and I followed her to the freezer. She opened it and pointed. Two petals had fallen off the bloom. “I know what you did night before last, Bartholomew. I couldn’t sleep all night and when I came in here and looked at our rose I knew what you’d done. I wouldn’t have been here when you came home if Hanover hadn’t come by yesterday evening.”
The only thing I could think to say was, “Whisker’s Hanover came…”
“He said what you did was left over from our families getting off track and what you did was no worse than something I’d done a few years back.”
I wanted to know what she’d done so I wouldn’t feel so guilty about what I’d done but I decided to go with the wisdom that it’s easier to forgive and forget what you don’t know.
Rachel kept talking. “I’m not just angry and sad about you, Bartholomew. I’m angry and sad about the both of us.”
It was enough said. If something is to be forgiven the best way to forget it is to not remember it. I know that sounds… well you can’t talk about what you force to stay out of your thoughts.
“Hanover said it would help to remind each other off and on what he had us repeat to him and each other the first day he showed us our rose.”
So we hugged, cried the grief into tears until we could talk to each other again and I said it to her first then she said it to me. “As long as love between us is enough to warm our hearts the coldness of the world’s hatreds will never come between us.” I understood how not to ignore the warmth in my heart for Rachel and discern the coldness of the world’s temptations better after that.
We took those two petals that had fallen off our bloom, one for each of us and buried them as far from the house as time would allow. I thought it odd that Rachel’s petal hadn’t fallen off until my indiscretion but I came to understand that also.
The years went by and our two kids grew up and fell in love. Rachel and I both were certain it was not by chance that we were able to combine the two weddings into one. They were due back the next day from their honeymoons when Rachel and I knew it was time to pass the rose on. We just didn’t know which one we should give it to. We went to the freezer and knew Hanover had come and gone without us knowing. In the freezer were two roses, each with one bloom. When Sara Ann and Joshua came back we gave them each their rose and had them repeat to us, to their spouses, then their spouses to them, “As long as love between us is enough to warm our hearts the coldness of the world’s hatreds will never come between us.”
It was time for the roses to be taken from the cold and put back into good soil.
Rachel and I visited our place next to the spring one more time before she passed a few months back. The last thing she said to me was, “That first cold day before that coldest of winters a small seed was planted in our hearts. It seemed like nothing… and yet it turned out to be everything, Bartholomew.”
Much to my surprise and of great help with my grief Hanover was at her funeral. All he said was, “Bartholomew, she’s only a single breath’s distance from you. It’ll not be long.”
What seemed liked nothing turned out be everything. It’s what a life well-tended does to the best seeds planted in good soil. And that’s how it should be, the small things adding up to be better than any big thing. It’s interesting how that can happen and one not know it until it’s almost over, until the mystery has unraveled to weave a life.