It started the day she returned from the morgue. Mrs. Ruddle Wildemore was sliding the key into the door lock when something moved at the edge of her sight.
She glanced into their—correction, her—forest garden. A suncatcher swayed from a branch, casting rainbows on leaves, berries, and bark. Its brass bell ting… ting… tinged… in the summer breeze. Tangerine nasturtiums peppered black earth—those had been Rudy’s favorite salad topping—and beyond, sixty-year-old branches hung down like familiar hands. The walnut tree had been the first Rudy planted when they moved to their Trout River homestead, once a sapling, now a towering giant, the center from which their wild garden sprang.
No. Her wild garden. Could she ever think of it as just hers?
Willamina’s gaze settled on the old trunk. Her sight wasn’t what it had been in her twenties, or even in her seventies, for that matter. She’d thought she saw something materialize and scurry up the tree. Had she seen anything at all? Had it been a squirrel? It hadn’t looked anything like a squirrel. Or a bird. Or a rabbit…but then, rabbits didn’t climb trees.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The sleeves of her linen blouse fluttered with the wind’s touch, tickling her crepey skin. When nothing but the leaves and petals shifted, she whispered, “Rudy? Is that you?”
The sun’s warmth rested on Willamina’s thinning hair, tied back in a structured bun. The color of her hair, stark white, bore no remembrance of what it once had been.
Willamina tried to recall Rudy’s face, but the memories surfacing were ones she didn’t want to see. She wanted him vibrant and young. Planting berry bushes, dirt-caked in his nail beds, a trowel tucked through the loop of his coveralls, but those memories were fragments at the edge of her sight. And the others? The ones that were brash and blaring and insistent? She refused them. Or at least, she tried.
“Rudy?” she asked again but of course, nothing replied. Certainly not Rudy.
Willamina knew that whatever she thought she had seen could not be him, so she turned the key and entered her empty house.
“Rudy, I’m home,” Willamina called, not because she thought he would answer but out of a sixty-year-old habit.
Willamina Wildemore’s house was more organized than a library. She might as well have card-cataloged each item. It hadn’t always been so. Not when Rudy was younger and well and impossible to contain. His wildlife rescues had once ruled their domain, turning Willamina’s attempts at orderliness into a zoo: injured raccoons raiding cupboards, a white-tail deer hoofing over her oak floors, squirrels hanging from the pinewood ceiling beams, and once, a three-legged bear in her well-labeled, alphabetized pantry.
There had been days she’d cried over the chaos, but now the noiselessness of her home hurt like the aftermath of an explosion when all the debris had settled, when the broken parts lay exposed, when the silence of the destruction wormed into her bones.
It nearly brought Willamina to her knees, but she was a rational woman. She’d been the one to hold the pieces together while Rudy, quiet as a storm on the horizon and as wild as nature, built his outlandish dreams into reality—the ones everyone had warned him against.
Even Willamina’s mother, when she was alive, had bent her daughter’s ear too many times about such nonsense. “Why can’t that man get a job in town with a good pension plan? Who wants to grow their food when you can buy it in a can, ready to heat and eat? Why on God’s green earth do you have to live in the middle of nowhere? Don’t you want a comfortable life? Pretty dresses? A washer and dryer? A television? Twinkies for breakfast and Little Debbie’s for dessert?” And when her mother was more exasperated by their seeming lack of progress—an entire year spent building compost piles and living in a tent, she’d complain, “The country is moving forward, and that man insists on living like a heathen foraging for berries and mushrooms. I swear to Jesus and Mother Mary, Willamina, if I come for a visit and that man’s wearing nothing but a loincloth, I’ll drag your father here with a shotgun to take you home and marry you off to an accountant or doctor! Someone that can provide for you right and proper!”
No one had heard of food forests in the 1960s. Most certainly not Willamina’s parents. When the world was pushing pesticides, modified crops, and convenient contraptions like microwaves to speed up meal preparation, Rudy had cultivated the contrary.
Besides, it didn’t matter. There was no telling Rudy what could and could not be done.
Now, standing on the threshold to her living room—where herbs grew from hanging pots, where recovering robins had once perched on branches screwed into the walls, where she and Rudy had shared their lives—Willamina knew nothing could turn back time. Wishing for what’s gone was for dreamers. Rudy had been the dreamer. Not her.
She dialed the Trout River Gazette on her rotary phone and asked to speak to the person that could place an obituary.
“How much?” Willamina asked.
“Starts at two hundred and fifty dollars, ma’am, but can run you up to five hundred if you want to include a picture.”
That was over a quarter of her social security payment. Though they had mainly lived off the homestead, Rudy had worked at the Fish and Wildlife Service for supplemental income which ended up providing a modest retirement. But with Rudy’s final costs and the medical bills…
Tears pushed at her eyelids. The cuckoo clock click, click, clicked into the stillness.
“You there, ma’am?”
“I’ll let you know,” and Willamina replaced the handset onto the base.
She sat on the log couch Rudy made some fifty years ago. Even though the place was filled with the essence of Rudy—the walls and foundation around her constructed with his own hands, sweat, and sometimes blood, the furniture he made from fallen logs and twisted willow branches—it didn’t bring back the memories she longed for. It only made her feel his absence more, like a fire poker in an open wound.
A breeze wafted in, like a huff of breath, even though no windows were open. A clack followed, and Willamina spotted a toppled photo frame. Odd. She picked it up, and any hint of wind disappeared.
In their faded 1960s wedding picture, Willamina was twenty, yarrow-laced hair trailing to her waist. Rudy was thirty-one, with owl-rimmed glasses and an uncombed beard to his chest. They held hands beneath a grapevine arbor constructed on their barren plot, gazing into each other’s eyes, ready to conquer the world together.
They looked like strangers to her now.
Passing at ninety-one, Ruddle Earnest Wildemore had outlived his brothers and sisters by over a decade. And as the youngest (some called her an afterthought) of three, so had Willamina. The couple was childless, grandchildless. All their old friends had passed. Nieces and nephews scattered all over the country had long since lost touch.
Now, it seemed, Rudy would die without notice. Drift away without anyone to celebrate his accomplishments. Not only was a memorial too expensive, but there wasn’t anyone left to attend.
He had been a kind man, full of tenderness and dedication. He didn’t deserve to go unseen. In Willamina’s estimation, he’d been overlooked for his good work his entire life—thought of as a crazy old forest fool.
Willamina would have drowned in those thoughts had it not been for the sharp whistle blasting from the kitchen.
Two western harvest mice stood by a steaming cup of chamomile tea, and, it seemed, another was busy turning off the burner where the wailing teapot sat. The critter leaped from the butcher block countertop, caught hold of the temperature dial, swung until the knob turned to OFF, vaulted to the floor with one Olympic-style mid-air somersault, landed, and skittered away.
Willamina wagged her jaw as if to say something, but what could she say? Mice had gotten the tea, the kettle, and the cup from the cupboard and brewed tea.
How could mice even carry a teacup, let alone a kettle?
It was absolute, utter nonsense.
Still, the fragrance of chamomile drifted to her. Rudy had been the one to make it for her with flowers picked out of their garden whenever her nerves were frazzled, which had been often in their earlier years together.
Later, he’d brought it to her every morning when she’d gone through the change and any last hope of a child of her own faded. She’d wondered if he’d filled the house with his rowdy rescues to keep her from that sadness. That loneliness of being childless. Of knowing this day would come—the day when no one but her would be left.
But Willamina didn’t remember any of that now. Those memories were blocked behind a gauzy curtain that could not be pulled aside. She only remembered there was something comforting about the chamomile. Something that gave her pause. Something that she should remember.
One of the mice turned its little bottom to the teacup and pressed into it. A puff of air ruffled its fur, and it nudged the cup in her direction. Which was, by all accounts, impossible. The mouse couldn’t have weighed a tenth of the full teacup. And yet, the cup slid toward her as if moved along by an invisible hand.
Rudy would have said, “Look, Willa! The elementals are here. Do you see them?” And Willa would have snorted, rolled her eyes, and said she saw no such thing.
But of course, Willa didn’t recall any such conversations.
The second mouse stood on its hind legs, shiny eyes imploring. The third squeaked a chorus of nonsensical mouse-talk.
A flutter of movement caught her eye, and that was when Mrs. Wildemore noticed the row of birds landing on the windowsill: a bushtit, a dark-eyed junco, a white-crowned sparrow, and even a dove joined and cooed.
Not knowing what else to do, she picked up the cup and sipped. She swore the mouse on its hindlegs nodded in approval.
The liquid settled the knot she’d held inside since she’d found Rudy dead in their bed.
Unlike the faded memories she couldn’t capture, this one was a technicolor movie on loop. Willamina had snuck beneath her dead husband’s arm and huddled against his chest like a frightened child, hoping that he hadn’t left her. That he was sleeping. Just sleeping. He’d awaken and tell her he loved her. That he’d never leave her. That they’d always be together.
The sticky quills of Rudy’s feather pillow had poked her shoulder. “Please don’t go. I can’t live without you,” she’d whispered to his cold corpse.
A chorus of birdsong had played outside the window as if nothing had happened, repeating like a broken record: chirp, chirp, chirp, twitter, trill… chirp, chirp, chirp, twitter, trill.
The room had seemed icy, like Rudy’s skin. She didn’t want that memory.
As the tea settled in her stomach, another memory crossed Willamina’s mind. Nothing bright or brilliant like the last. No. This memory was like flipping through an old scrapbook, the pages going by too quickly to make out much. A picture here. A word scribbled there. A newspaper clip glued to a page. But a memory it was. And it went something like this:
Rudy. Nursing a hare. A snowshoe? A jackrabbit? It had been mauled. By a cougar? A bobcat? A coyote? It lay on Rudy’s lap, dying.
Willamina sat next to him. Holding his hand? Or was her hand on his shoulder? The hare, or rabbit, convulsed one last time and lay lifeless.
Rudy said, or she thought he said, “Did you feel that?”
“His spirit cross. His energy rise up and out and all over. Uncontained. Free. Joining the nature spirits.”
Nature spirits, or elementals, were what Rudy called fairies. That, Willamina could not forget. She had never believed in them, but Rudy did. Said they were everywhere. Said you felt them. Said you could see them if you were open. That the world, this big beautiful dance of energy, had many secrets hiding in plain sight if one would just look.
“I felt nothing,” Willamina had said.
At least, she thought she had said so then.
Now, she sat sipping tea with three mice and a flock of birds in the kitchen Rudy had built. The implausibility of the situation and the implications of her state of mind unsettled her. Deciding it was time for no more nonsense, she left the kitchen without so much as a glance at the critters.
“Cremation or burial?” the funeral home director asked, bifocals balancing on the tip of his nose. He stared at the form, all questions and checkboxes, a ballpoint pen ready in hand.
“Cremation,” Willamina said.
“Are you sure you don’t want a burial? There are nice plots at Peaceful Rest Cemetery for only $3,555. What about the service? We have a full-service funeral package for $7,649.95, including the coffin, unless you want to upgrade. Of course, if you choose cremation the coffin will be cremated along with your loved one. But it’s worth the investment. Our solid mahogany model is lined with high-quality velvet and makes a beautiful final presentation.”
“No service,” she said. “We want a cardboard casket. And I have the urn he chose here.” Willamina sat the box she’d been holding on the funeral director’s desk. It was a simple biodegradable urn that the palliative care counselor helped them purchase after his diagnosis had been confirmed.
“I see.” The director fixated on her, sliding his bifocals down. “If you don’t mind me asking, you’re on a fixed income, right?”
“And my paperwork says you live out on Old River Road, is that correct?”
He removed his glasses and scrubbed at his eyes. A plastic ivy trailed off the bookshelf behind him. There weren’t books on the shelves, but coffin catalogs, headstone flyers, urns, and one very peculiar necklace with a pendant made of swirling colors. A sign next to it read:
Always have your loved one close to your heart. Create a one-of-a-kind keepsake with their ashes to hand down to your children and grandchildren. 24-karat gold chain and bail. Starting at only $595.
Mrs. Wildemore thought the director might present cheaper options, but he led Willamina into the viewing room to see Rudy one last time instead.
Rudy’s naked body was covered with a sanitary hospital sheet and laid out on a metal gurney. Willamina tugged at his soft beard. Someone had brushed it out, taken away all his unruly curls. She kissed his waxy lips, but there were no words she could muster for goodbyes. This. This man lying lifeless. This was not Rudy. Not her husband. Not her love. It just…couldn’t be.
When Willamina puttered up Old River Road in her ‘72 Chevy LUV pickup, a raccoon saluted her. It raised on its hind legs, looked directly at her, or so she thought, lifted its short arm in the air, and waved its long fingers in front of its forehead in a military manner. Willamina blinked.
It couldn’t be.
I’m tired. Just tired.
At least, that’s what she told herself.
Once inside, Willamina smelled something coming from the kitchen. Something pleasantly scented. Delicious, even.
When she entered the kitchen, she noted the mice had taken up residence in the pantry. When Rudy became ill, Willamina had set about canning all she could. She knew there would be no line of mourners with casseroles at her doorstep, no baskets of cookies and condolences. Consequently, her pantry was jam-packed.
Mice hopped from mason jar to mason jar. They squeaked back mouse-ish to another, who looked, beyond all comprehension, to be taking inventory—counting on little mouse fingers. Could that be right?
But that activity wasn’t the most curious part.
A saucepan sat on the stovetop. A china bowl from her Summer Roses set, which her mother had given them as a wedding gift, sat on the table over a crocheted tablecloth alongside a spoon and wafers.
Willamina stirred the concoction and tasted it. Just a dab on the end of the ladle.
Cream of asparagus soup. Rudy’s favorite.
A flash of images: Rudy. In the garden. On his knees, trowel in one hand, asparagus bunch in the other, grinning up at her. He said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But as quickly as it came, the memory left. Gone. Replaced with nothing but the desire for more. She dropped the ladle into the saucepan.
Mrs. Wildemore had had about enough. She tossed the spoon and bowl into the sink. A sickening crack sounded as porcelain met porcelain, making her angrier.
She picked up a broom and swatted at the mice. “That’s enough! Enough! Enough!”
The little critters went scurrying across the oak floor.
Willamina couldn’t bring herself to sleep in their bed. Not this soon after. She hadn’t even had the strength to change the bedding. So she walked into the forest garden.
As she crossed under the grapevine-laden arbor, the same one she and Rudy exchanged vows under, it seemed odd she’d mourn Rudy’s death in late summer, when everything around her was so alive.
Deep purple huckleberries spotted green leaves. Chamomile, white petals surrounding cheery yellow heads, bloomed in patches of sunlight. Crimson stems peeked from under umbrella-like rhubarb leaves. Water babbled in the background where the creek met the Little Trout River. And the scent. Forest pine, sweet wildflowers, and honeysuckle mixed in an intoxicating way. The smell was unlike any other. It smelled like home. It smelled like Rudy.
Rudy’s master plan had been to return the scarred earth to a natural state of abundance, and the walnut tree had started it all. He had called it a food forest and said it was how people were intended to live—in harmony and cooperation with nature—and that someday people would recognize that wisdom. Maybe after he was gone, perhaps after they both were, but eventually, people would have to see it if the world was to survive.
Willamina sat down beneath the tree, arranging her tea-stained skirt. Feather moss cushioned her bony bottom. She rested her back against the scaley trunk and closed her eyes.
Mr. Wildemore had brought his blushing bride to the Little Trout River in the wilds of Washington State in 1962. He’d tugged Willamina out of the passenger’s side of his Ford pickup, coaxed her to the center of a naked twenty-acre plot, and gestured as if presenting treasure to a queen.
The land was a scar within the over-logged forest. Loggers had used the spot for decades, dragging felled trees into the river to float them downstream to the mill, scraping up topsoil trip after trip, year after year, decade after decade, until nothing grew back and the ground beneath was barren. Lifeless. Not soil, but nutrient-depleted dirt. There wasn’t a bird to be heard. Or a rabbit in the bush. There weren’t even any bushes! Everything around them was dead.
Rudy waited, watching his bride from behind his owl-eyed glasses. He wore that cockamamie half-grin, one side up and the other down. His bushy eyebrows matched his sideways smile in their crookedness. His bellbottoms settled in the dirt like he was dug in, growing roots with his heels. The gush and splash of the Little Trout River sounded behind them as moments frittered away.
“No.” Willamina planted her hands on her hips, a gesture which was as solid as Rudy’s heels in the ground. “We won’t be able to grow a garden here.”
Rudy swept his arms around again as if she hadn’t seen its majesty the first time.
“No, Rudy. We’re miles from town. I will not live without electricity.”
“There’s a pole a few miles back down the road.” The sky rumbled above them like an orchestra tuning before a performance. The scent of rain filled the air.
“I will not live without running water.”
“I’ll pump from the river.”
“This is not the 1890s, Ruddle Earnest Wildemore.”
“Hey, now. Don’t sweat it, baby girl. We’ll even have a telephone. Cross my heart. I’m gonna take good care of you. You know that, right?”
Rudy pulled her into him. Tugged her defiant hands off her hips. Circled them around his waist. Hugged her tight and kissed her. Sprinkles plopped down on their exposed noses and cheeks, but the two kept at their kisses, lost in one another’s touch, until Willamina remembered her mission. She pulled out of his hug.
“Rudy, I’m serious. I—”
A kee-eeeee-arr sounded above them.
They looked skyward as a red-tailed hawk circled, coming lower and lower until it landed in the dirt not two feet from them. It hopped over and dropped a long-bearded hawkweed at their feet. The hawk cocked its head and stared.
Rudy raised his eyebrows at Willamina.
“It means nothing,” said Willamina.
“It’s a sign,” said Rudy.
“It’s not a sign.”
“Then what is it?”
Willamina couldn’t deny the oddity of the moment, even though she’d become accustomed to peculiar happenings around Rudy. It seemed that Rudy was connected to something mystical but whenever Willamina had such a thought about him, she dismissed it. Nothing could convince her life was not a practical matter to be handled sensibly.
Rudy grasped both of her hands. “We’re meant to restore this land. Build a food forest. Bring back nature. Feed the wild things. Live in harmony. I feel it in my bones, Willa. The natural things want this. They’re telling us to do this.” Indeed, the hawk kept staring at the newlyweds as if it agreed. “It’s my purpose.”
But was it Willamina’s? “Look at this place. Everything’s dead.”
“Oh, baby doll. Close your eyes,” he said, “and imagine.”
“No, Rudy. We need to be rational.”
He turned her around and put his palms over her eyes.
“Oh, Rudy, stop.” But she laughed at his touch.
“Just keep your eyes closed.” He leaned close. He wound his arms around her stomach, tugging her into the comfortable curve of his body.
Willamina opened an eye, and he scolded, “No peeking.”
She giggled like a schoolgirl but complied.
“I wish you could see what I see. The magic. The majesty. The possibility.” The seriousness of his voice stilled her. She listened. Listened with all her body. “It’s alive. Nature is all around us. Waiting for us. Waiting for our vision. Our hands. Our work. See, there’s a walnut tree in its prime, bearing hundreds of pounds of nuts, at the center of our wild forest garden. Our house is not fifty steps away, built with naturally fallen pine. Berries, chestnut trees, rhubarb, and mushrooms are ready for harvest for months out of the year. Squirrels and birds, foxes and field mice, raccoons and whitetails return, and our forest garden feeds not only us but them. Nature is allowed to be nature again. Can you see it? There in your mind’s eye? Can you see what we can create?”
Willamina wanted to. Wanted it with all her heart. But then she opened her eyes to the scarred earth, to the abuse that seemed irreversible. “Nothing lives here, Rudy.”
He grinned again. Though she couldn’t see it, she felt it, and knew he wore that troublemaking smile. “Au contraire, Madame Wildemore. We do. And with a bit of elbow grease, so will an entire forest of living things.”
The hawk beaked the flower and tossed it toward them. It landed on the toe of Willamina’s Mary Jane, a yellow splash on black. Then the hawk took to the sky with a whoop, whoop, whoop of his wings.
“You can’t argue with that,” said Rudy.
“And that’s why you love me,” he said.
It was true. She loved him more than she’d loved anything in her young life. She loved him because of the wonder she saw behind those owl-round eyes. She loved him because he saw worlds more beautiful than what existed before them. She loved him because the word ‘impossible’ was only a catalyst for change for him. Rudy held more belief in his little pinky finger than anyone she knew, especially her. In that way, she supposed, they balanced out. Complemented each other. He, the dreamer, she, the rationalist. She might not have believed nature was alive and incarnate, but she believed in Rudy. And if he believed, she’d support him one thousand percent.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you, Mr. Ruddle Earnest Wildemore?”
“Not more than I love you, my gorgeous, big-hearted wife.” Rudy picked her up as he’d done on their wedding night, cradled her to his chest, his beard tickling her cheek. He spun her in circles beneath summer rain clouds, the hawk circling above them. Sprinkles turned to a downpour, a musical pitter-patter like a band at a country dance, and Willamina’s squeals turned to laughter, and Rudy’s smiles turned to kisses, hungry and passionate.
But that’s not what Willamina remembered. The memories had faded, turning to mush—blotted pictures in her head, watered-down words in her ears. And now, more than ever, she wished to recall it.
But everything about that day was a blur. Remembering how barren the land had been was near impossible. Even though her wedding photos gave glimpses of the homestead before Rudy’s decades of dedication, the entirety of the land’s disfigurement was lost to her.
But she remembered the hawk. Was it a hawk? Or an eagle? She remembered the flower. Was it a yellow hawkweed or a purple lupine? Maybe a white, daisy-like phlox?
Had a hawk dropped a flower at their feet? Or had she made up the memory to comfort herself?
What Willamina could remember were those last months: Rudy, declining, the life sucked out of his sunken cheeks, the trips to the Saint Paul’s hospital, waiting for hours in antiseptic rooms, the news of stage four melanoma metastasized to the lungs, the doctor’s deadpan face when he delivered his “only a few months” prognosis, then finding her love dead in their bed.
Willamina wished those memories would fade and the other wild-about-life Rudy memories would return.
A puff of air caressed her cheek, and a curious thing happened when Willamina opened her eyes. She found a bright yellow, long-bearded hawkweed lying on her lap.
Not a day later, someone knocked on the door. Willamina couldn’t imagine a single soul who would drop by, and when she opened the door, no one was there. She stared into her wild garden, expecting movement like the day she had returned home from the morgue.
The breeze pushed up the fishy scent of the Little Trout River. Nothing moved, but when Willamina thought to close the door, she heard something chatter.
There, not a foot away from the door’s threshold sat a red squirrel. Its shiny eyes looked up at her; rusty-red ears twitched. It held a blueberry out to her in one of its paws.
“Oh, no,” she said. “No more of this imaginary nonsense,” and she started to shut the door.
“Rah…Rah…Rah…” cried the squirrel. Its whiskers twitched. It blinked. It held up the arm not bearing the blueberry, and that’s when Willamina realized its wrist hung like a floppy noodle.
Then Willamina said, “Rudy.” It wasn’t because she didn’t remember Rudy was gone but because rescue was Rudy’s love. His passion. His mission, along with the restoration of the land. Yes, she’d assisted him, but Rudy, always Rudy, did the mending.
So she said his name like a prayer, and it was for Rudy’s sake she asked the squirrel, “What happened to you?”
The critter chattered away like it was explaining.
And despite Willamina’s rational judgment, she stepped aside and waved it in.
It scurried across the floor, holding up its injured foreleg, scrambled into the kitchen, scaled the tablecloth, and sat waiting for Willamina.
If she had imagined the mice and tea… If she had concocted the nut cream of asparagus soup… If the raccoon salute was merely a mis-seeing of what happened… If the hawkweed just blew in on the breeze and coincidentally settled in her lap… All those things had happened or not. But the critter on her kitchen table required attention. If she proclaimed it fiction and turned it away and it wasn’t, then what?
What would Rudy do? What would Rudy want her to do? And for that matter, what did Willamina want to do? Hadn’t she done this for the better part of her life, too?
But nothing came to mind.
Willamina looked for supplies. Herbs for pain? For calming? What to use, what to use? Didn’t Rudy keep a medical emergency bag?
When she turned back to the squirrel, two mice had joined the patient on the table. One balanced atop an isopropyl alcohol bottle, another held a popsicle stick with its forepaws, and a bandage ball rolled across the table by itself.
A blue jay landed, offering her a cotton ball. It seemed the logical next move, so she wetted it with alcohol. The red squirrel stretched out its limp hand and covered its eyes with the other.
But when it came to the moment of doctoring, Willamina wasn’t sure what to do. Yes, she’d fetched the supplies, boiled tea, and made poultices, which she vaguely remembered. Still, Rudy, always Rudy, knew what to look for, how to test for fractures, clean wounds, make splints, and administer liquids, sub-Q or through a syringe or a bottle or…
Willamina closed her eyes, willing Rudy’s guidance. But just because she wished for him didn’t mean he would come.
She sighed, took a breath, and fumbled through it. She blotted an open wound. Then cut the sticks into tiny splints and wrapped the little paw with the bandage. The result was not Rudy’s caliber, though she couldn’t quite remember what standard Rudy had held. But it would, perhaps, do the job.
When Mrs. Wildemore looked up from her work, she realized an audience had gathered in the kitchen. A woodrat, a pocket gopher, and a yellow-bellied marmot lined up. Even a mule deer fawn stood on unsteady legs.
But they weren’t just spectators. Upon inspection, each bore some wound that needed tending.
Mrs. Wildemore set out to help them, but she dropped the bottle of alcohol on the floor, resulting in an antiseptic puddle. The bandage slipped from her hand and rolled underneath the cupboard. She slipped on the wet floor and cracked her head on the table when she tried to fish it out.
She sat on her haunches, held her head with her hand, and willed, willed! Rudy’s memory to her. Show me what to do. She tried to remember him. Were his hands capable or gentle or both? Were his eyes intelligent or compassionate or both? Were his actions quick like a snake’s strike? Or soft like a doe’s nuzzle? This was Rudy’s domain. Not hers. He was the one who worked at Fish and Wildlife. The one with a degree in biology. The one who had trained as a wildlife emergency caretaker. Rudy was the forest mastermind. The magic healer. The spiritual shaman.
And she was…what?
The memories wouldn’t come. Just the overwhelming proof of her insufficiency and the lack of his presence.
“Rudy, why did you leave me?”
The red squirrel chucked and inched toward her, but she held out a hand to stop it.
“I can’t,” she said. This was Rudy’s dream. Rudy’s skill. Rudy’s compassion. And he wasn’t there anymore. So Willamina said, “Get out.”
The animals pressed in around her.
“Get out! Get out!” she yelled.
The animals bowed their heads, filed out the door, and disappeared into Rudy’s forest garden.
After they’d gone, including a moose who had stood behind a western larch and grunted when she shut the door on him, their wedding photo fell over, frame first, onto the coffee table. Willamina picked it up, clutching it to her chest.
She lay on the sofa, curled her legs as far as the old fragile things would bend, and did something she had not allowed herself to do. Something she’d thought if she started, she’d never stop.
She cried. Sobbed. Wailed for the loss of Rudy. His absence. Her loneliness. The pain it caused in every bone of her body. For how much she missed him. For being left behind. For how she’d never be with him again.
As she did, the wind howled outside. It shook branches and limbs, bushes and grasses. It banged on the shutters. The dark sky poured droplets as large as treefrogs and drummed against the rooftop. Lightning crackled like anguished gods.
Critters of all species pressed wet noses to the windowpanes: a Rocky Mountain elk, a California bighorn, more squirrels and raccoons and birds and rats, and even a cougar, prey and predator at peace for the moment. They joined the storm and watched the grieving woman, somber as pallbearers.
Later, reports would confirm a power outage happened at that exact moment.
But Willamina knew nothing of all that. For all she knew, there on the couch, eyes blurred with tears, snot running, chest squeezing, she wept alone.
Rudy’s face appeared out of the blackness, wiry beard dangling to his flannel pockets, earth-brown eyes behind owl-eyed glasses. Intent. Serious. Compelling. Lights danced around his head like translucent feathers. He was vibrant and young and oh, so beautiful. He reached for Willamina, hands stained with rich black earth.
“You can see what I see, Willa. You can. Just open your eyes.”
A knock at the door startled Willamina awake.
Rudy. Rudy. Rudy!
But he’d gone. Willamina refused to open her eyes. If she kept them closed, he’d return. She could continue the dream. Continue being with him. At least, she hoped that would happen.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Mrs. Wildemore?” called a nasal voice. “Are you home? Hello?”
Go away, said Willamina in her head. She hadn’t the strength to bring the words to her lips. She wanted to return to Rudy’s dream.
“I’m Laura Doyle from Adult Protective Services. I’m delivering your late husband’s ashes from the Peaceful Slumber Funeral Home. Are you there?”
Maybe the intruder would leave if Willamina stayed still, curled on Rudy’s couch, the sun through the window warming her eyelids. But it occurred to Willamina that a social worker delivering Rudy’s ashes wasn’t good. It must have been why the funeral director had been so inquisitive about her finances—to assume incompetence and rally the authorities to do a home check. It wasn’t the first time she’d been treated as incapable because of her age, or where and how she lived. Small towns were infamous for neighborhood busybodies; Trout River wasn’t exempt, and that was enough to rouse her.
“I’m coming,” said Mrs. Wildemore and rallied herself to open the door.
“Hello. I’m Laura Doyle. It’s nice to meet you.” She held one plump hand out for a shake while cradling Rudy’s urn.
The cuckoo clock tik toked. Laura wore a collared shirt and a rhinestone fleur de lis brooch pinned on her candy-pink lapel. She smelled of department store perfume.
Laura asked, “May I come in?”
Laura smiled, and it wasn’t an unkind expression. But as she crossed into the living room, she eyed every spec from the pine beams to the log furniture, from the neatly hung jackets on tree limb pegs to boots for all occasions (snow, mud, hiking, work) lined up beneath. “What an unusual home you have,” she said. “It’s not at all what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“Well, I…” Laura looked around. The sun beamed through the picture window, framing the forest garden as if an impossible painting hung on the wall. Herbs pinned to a wire scented the air with thyme, oregano, and sage. Embroidered pillows displayed on Rudy’s log sofa brightened the warm wood room with whimsical bees and hummingbirds. “I don’t rightly know,” said Laura. “But it’s simply charming.”
Willamina beamed. Indeed, she and Rudy had made a lovely home together. His vision and building along with her organizing and tending to the practicalities of life had come together to create something bigger than them both. “Thank you. Can I get you some tea?”
“That’d be nice.” Laura sat the urn on the coffee table next to a display of cracked geodes, a potted rosemary plant, and beeswax candles.
Willamina made and served the tea while Laura poked around, commenting on the neat and tidy pantry, the pristine condition of her cabinets, and did she always keep the place so clean?
When the two women were settled on the couch, Summer Roses teacups in hand, Willamina asked, “So what’s this all about?”
“I’m sorry for your loss. But to be honest, we’ve been a little worried about your husband’s passing and you out here on the homestead all by yourself. So, I wanted to offer you some options.”
“It must be tough living out here all alone. There’s so much upkeep. It will be difficult to do everything by yourself. You’re stocked up for the moment, but can you harvest the garden now that your husband is gone? Social security isn’t much to survive on. Wouldn’t some support be nice?”
Light filtered through the window. Willamina had seen the harsh sun in Arizona, the foggy New Hampshire haze, the sticky Florida rays, and everything between when she and Rudy backpacked across the United States before settling down. But Washington’s light was unlike any place else—a pastel softness that lingered well into twilight, sky dotted with pink and lavender clouds, like something supernatural. It reminded her of Rudy.
“What I’m getting at,” said Laura, “is we have a lovely retirement home in town, Haven Senior Living. There are shuffleboard tournaments and karaoke competitions. All meals are provided with no cooking on your part. Excellent housekeepers. You wouldn’t have to lift a finger, and you’d be surrounded by others of your age. Not alone out here where anything could happen. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s covered by Medicaid if you qualify, and from what I understand, you’ve no assets other than this home, and, if that’s correct, I can help you liquidate and still retain your benefits. The rooms are furnished. You wouldn’t have to move anything. You could forget about cooking, cleaning, harvesting, keeping up the property, and paying bills. Forget everything and enjoy your final chapter with ease.”
“Forget?” asked Mrs. Wildemore.
“There wouldn’t be anything to worry over. You’d make new friends and—”
“Forget?” asked Willamina again. Forget Rudy’s lovingly crafted home, his food forest they’d built with over half a century of their lives? Forget that she’d stood by him, believed in him, and helped make his vision come true? Give up on that? On the animals? On the forest? On nature itself? “What about Rudy?” Willamina asked but to herself, not Laura.
“Oh, there is a perfect spot for his urn. There’s a wonderful glass display case in each room. It even has a lock on it. Just put all your treasures on the shelves and lock them up safe.”
Willamina pictured Rudy in a glass cabinet, on a manufactured shelf, not wild and free, hair riding the wind, sun deepening the brown of his cheeks. She saw herself next to him doing nothing but frittering away time, surrounded by concrete and plastic flowers, and eating packaged meals. “No,” said Willamina.
“Rudy and I will stay here.”
“I know it’s hard,” said Laura. “Change is always frightening, but if you’ll just see reason—”
“Reason,” said Willamina, “is the exact opposite of what I want to see.” Willamina stood and walked to the door. “Now, if that is all.” She placed her hands on her hips, an action that had only grown in power since her younger days.
Laura sat down her teacup, grabbed her purse, and shuffled to the door.
“I will stop by,” said Laura. “Pop in for a friendly visit from time to time if you don’t mind.”
“Folks have a right to do as they see fit,” said Willamina, knowing a refusal would be pointless. Besides, though reason was the last thing she wanted right then, she realized there might be a time when she needed help, when she wasn’t as able, when she might welcome a helping hand. Reason had not flown out the door. It had just compromised for the time being.
After Laura left, Willamina piled nuts, plump berries, and fragrant herbs on plates and set them outside as an apology to the animals.
Then Mrs. Wildemore did the most curious thing. More curious than mice making tea or asparagus soup. Or hawks gifting flowers. Or animals saluting. She left a bowl of almond milk out. She had poured it into one of her Summer Roses serving bowls, sat it on a charger plate, garnished it with rosemary stems, and said as she placed the offering on the ground, “I want to see what you see, Rudy.”
When Willamina walked into her room to change the bedding and finally sleep in their bed, she found it already washed and remade. Her bluebird embroidered pillows had been fluffed, and the bedcovers were turned down. Rudy’s eco urn sat on the nightstand next to a lit beeswax candle, the air scented with honey. Without question, she climbed between the embroidered sheets and said, “Goodnight,” to whoever might be listening.
In the morning, Willamina checked on the bowl and plates and found them empty and, more peculiarly, discovered a book of some sort placed beside them. A whisper of a breeze caressed her hair which was no longer tethered at her neck but white waves cascading around her middle. Bird calls filled the trees. Croaks and chatters and the buzz of bumblebees reminded her how alive their forest garden was—and indeed, it was theirs. Even though Rudy had gone, it belonged in their charge. She realized it might have started as Rudy’s dream, but in all those years together, her by his side, believing in him, seeing what he brought to life, it had become hers, too. Something she didn’t want to live without. It was their life. Their passion. Their vision.
She picked up the tome, a scrapbook with a 1970s floral cover. She fingered it and opened the first page.
A picture of a younger Rudy stared back at her from not ten years after moving into their Trout River homestead. A red squirrel with a bandaged leg curled around his neck, kissing his bearded cheek. Rudy wore that cockamamie grin, and tears leaked from Willamina’s eyes.
“Rudy,” she said. “My uncontainable Rudy.” She held the book to her heart and hugged it. “I thought I’d lost this book decades ago.”
A chuck chuck chuck sounded next to her. The red squirrel scrambled over and held up his forepaw, showing her the bandage was still in place.
“I see,” she said, and the little thing chuck chucked again, climbing up on her arm, and pointed at the picture.
“Is that…?” Willamina asked, “Is that your relative?”
The red squirrel bounced up and down, rusty hairs tickling her skin.
It shook its head.
“Father? Grandfather? Great-grandfather? Great, great, great—?”
The fuzzball nodded and hopped and chucked, and Willamina remembered. She remembered with a vividness like a Dolby Cinema film playing on the big screen. Or fireworks lighting up the Fourth of July. Or like Rudy, wild Rudy, standing directly in front of her.
After a hailstorm, Rudy had found the injured red squirrel concussed with a broken arm from golf ball-sized hail. He’d named him Barnaby and nursed him back to health, but the little guy wouldn’t leave.
“Red squirrels are notoriously singular,” Rudy had said, “but this little one doesn’t want to leave.” Indeed, Barnaby preferred nestling in Rudy’s wonderland beard, cracking nuts from the top of Rudy’s haloed curls, or using his wire-rimmed glasses to propel himself off Rudy’s head to the couch or kitchen table or wherever else he’d want to go. Barnaby slept nestled between Willamina and Rudy for an entire year before he finally found a gal of his own. Consequently, Barnaby had sired a generation of red squirrels that lived right there on the homestead.
“Well, then, I’ll call you BJ for Barnaby Junior,” said Willamina, and the squirrel chucked his agreement.
Willamina and BJ leafed through the scrapbook, recalling memory after memory as the forest animals returned and circled her: a polaroid of Rudy, overalls equipped with hoe and spade, clutching a bouquet of chamomile, Rudy lying in a patch of sunlight by the pepperings of asparagus, Rudy mending a raccoon, Rudy, that first time they’d ever come to the Little Trout River plot, standing in a barren wasteland, in a downpour, grinning, holding a bright yellow, long-beard hawkweed in his hand.
How had she missed it?
The chamomile tea, the asparagus soup, the raccoon, and hawkweed.
They had been trying to help her remember him the entire time!
A chirp, chirp, chirp, twitter, trill… chirp, chirp, chirp, twitter, trill filled the air, the same anthem the birds had sung the day Rudy died. The first time Willamina had heard it, she thought the birds had behaved as if nothing had happened. As if Rudy’s passing were inconsequential. But now, she wondered, did it mean something more? Something different?
BJ chattered, hopped, and wagged his rusty-red tail. He tugged on Willamina’s ankle-length skirt.
“Okay, okay. I’m coming.” She laughed and clutched the scrapbook as the little wire tail pulled her into the forest garden with a procession of animals following.
“What are you trying to show me, now?”
As they passed beneath the grapevine arbor and headed down the path to the walnut tree, Willamina spotted what all the excitement was about.
Rudy’s urn, along with their wedding photo, sat at the base of the grandfather tree. Godrays shone down through leafy branches like streamers from a church window. Limbs and bushes, flowers and grasses all moved, swaying together. Around them, piles of fresh berries, plump peaches, honeysuckle flowers, walnuts, and every imaginable bounty from their forest garden were gathered and displayed. Birds fluttered to perches. The harvest mice held almonds in their forepaws, and whitetail, raccoon, rabbits, lizards, and snakes emerged from the forest surrounding Rudy’s grand memorial.
A collective voice sounded on the breeze, “We remember Rudy,” and then Mrs. Wildemore saw what Rudy had seen.
It started as coagulated mist, sunspots, orbs, and little flashes of lights appearing throughout the forest. On the path. On a branch. A chamomile stem. A leaf.
Willamina blinked. She rubbed her old eyes. A glimmering whole came into view like an intricate, living web weaving throughout the forest and animals. It sparkled and danced, touching everyone and everything as if it breathed in unison with all life. It wrapped its shiny strings around her, and she felt it like a long-missed hug. Everything moved in concert, like an orchestra where different instruments played different parts, making the whole piece rich, complete, and harmonic, and she, she was a part of it.
“We’ll always remember Rudy,” the collective voice crooned, a lullaby on the wind.
The tears Willamina shed were those of joy. Of relief. Of gratitude so overwhelming, she couldn’t form words.
The celebration that followed venerated Rudy more than Willamina could have wished for. They buried his ashes at the walnut tree’s roots to nourish the ground. Nasturtium and chamomile petals dropped on top of them, blown by the wind, birds and bees played their music in concert with the breeze, BJ snuggled around Willamina’s neck, and everyone indulged in the wild bounty Rudy’s vision and hard work had made possible.
In the years to come, Mrs. Ruddle Wildemore would continue her late husband’s life’s work. Their shared life’s work. And when Laura visited, Willamina would make sure to amend her will with the cooperation of Fish and Wildlife and designate this place, their home, as a wildlife sanctuary when she died.
Eleven years later, on the very day that Rudy had passed, Willamina headed out to the walnut tree to nap. Huckleberries were fat on the bush, and nasturtiums bloomed like bolts of colored lights on the forest floor. Willamina, at ninety-one, was quite tired. She eased her old bones onto the moss-covered roots. Birds flew down and landed on her lap. The daughter of Barnaby Junior nestled in her arms as Mrs. Ruddle Wildemore closed her eyes for the very last time.
Her body was never found. Some say the earth swallowed her up. Or that bears or wolves carried her away. But the truth of the matter was that nature wrapped Mrs. Willamina Wildemore within its web while birds, reptiles, amphibians, and animals gathered. They made a crown of chamomile and placed it on Willamina’s white-haired head while birds sang chirp, chirp, chirp, twitter, trill. They covered her body with earth and leaves as Willamina’s spirit crossed to join Rudy’s, free and uncontained.
And, once every year during summer, if one is open, if one looks, they’ll see them gathered there—all the creatures and nature sharing the fruits of the forest garden in memory of the two who dedicated the better parts of their lives to restoring the wild ones’ forest home.