Grace Mattern’s poetry and short fiction have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Calyx, Prairie Schooner, The Sun, Poet Lore, Cider Press Review and Yankee. She has received fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and Vermont Studio Center and has published two books of poetry, Fever of Unknown Origin (Oyster River Press, 2002) and The Truth About Death (Turning Point Books, 2012), which received a Readers’ Choice NH Literary Award for poetry.
Ahead of Eric on the trail, I stop to wait. I look back for him and notice the stone wall that travels up and down the rippled slopes of Mt. Israel. The stacked line of granite has a stately beauty, still holding its shape after more than a century, marking the boundaries of what was once open fields. I imagine the view that would have spread out below me, toward the lakes and lower hills to the south, a bit of which is visible today through the spines of trees still bare on this early March weekend in New Hampshire.
While the trail was sunlit and warm at the bottom, by the time we reached the peak it was still winter. We had to put on our snowshoes to manage the deep snow pack and brushed through stunted spruce trees encased in rime ice, bowed over the trail by the frozen weight of winter. We put on all the outerwear we’d brought, pulled up the hoods of our jackets and tightened them over our wool hats.
Hiking down has been a return to the softening of spring, buds on the trees showing their first hints of color and water running fast in small streams. I’ve shed the extra layers I needed at the top.
Eric catches up with me. “I couldn’t run down like I usually do,” he says and I realize I’ve been wondering why I had to wait for him. We’ve been hiking together through all the decades of our marriage. I know what to expect. He hikes uphill slowly, always behind me as I motor up, pushing the limits of my heartbeat and leg muscles. But coming down Eric usually stays in front. Today he is slow. “My back hurts,” he says.
Two months later Eric is dead. Mt. Israel was our last hike together.
It was a beautiful day when Eric died, his body succumbing in only weeks from when we finally understood the increasing pain in his back was metastatic cancer. Day after day had been bright and breezy, sunlight rippling over his shrinking body as the shades in the open windows of the room where he slept and woke and slept again blew with the warm wind.
Three years later I stop along the trail up Mt. Israel on another clear spring day, sunlight warm up around my shoulders, the chill off the snow at my feet losing patience before it reaches my body core. The stone wall still rises and falls over the ridged hillside, the granite weathered to a rough silver, straight and fluid. Water falling off the mountainside in the stream we cross fans up in a spray over rocks. My feet are wet. I’ve forgotten again to waterproof my boots. Today I am hiking with David, my new companion, a surprise Eric predicted.
“What’s going to happen to me when you’re gone?” I’d asked a few days after we’d learned the extent of disease in Eric’s liver and bones and how little time we had left together.
“You’ll heal for a year or two and then some man will scoop you up.”
David and I stop to grocery shop on the way home, a routine chore we’re getting used to doing together. We’re tired and muddy and want to get home to an evening to ourselves, but it makes sense to get the shopping done now. That way we can stay home all day tomorrow.
I ease into a parking space in the grocery store lot and David pulls a large granite stone from his pocket. “This is for Eric’s grave.” In the year we’ve been together, David has learned from me the Jewish custom of putting a rock on a loved one’s gravestone, a way to mark the visit with a solid reminder.
“I’ve been wanting to go there for weeks,” I say.
“We’ll go after we shop.”
I drive the winding narrow lanes between stone monuments, the trees here also bare. In weeks, the buds will start to break open, making good on the cemetery name, Blossom Hill.
There are piles of rocks on Eric’s tall, narrow headstone of rose granite, though many have fallen off over the winter. I look for rocks in the still yellow grass and make more piles. The gold-foiled pieces of Hanukkah gelt our children, mine and Eric’s, brought to the grave in December are still on the top ledge of the gravestone. The small gourds our daughter painted are a few feet away, half-hidden in matted grass. I pick them up and make a space for their round bottoms to sit among the stones. David puts his piece of granite from Mt. Israel on Eric’s headstone, rearranging rocks to make room.