The home sat on twelve acres adjacent to Brices Creek, and he’d worked on the wooden fence that lined the other three sides of the property; checking for dry rot or termites, replacing posts where he had to. He still had more work to do on the west side, and as he’d put the tools away earlier he’d made a mental note to call and have some more timber delivered. He’d gone into the house, drunk a glass of sweet tea, then showered, the water washing away dirt and fatigue.
Afterwards he’d combed his hair back, put on some faded jeans and a long-sleeved blue shirt, poured himself another glass of tea and gone to the porch, where he sat every day at this time.
He reached for his guitar, remembering his father as he did so, thinking how much he missed him. Noah strummed once, adjusted the tension on two strings, then strummed again, soft, quiet music. He hummed at first, then began to sing as night came down around him.
It was a little after seven when he stopped and settled back into his rocking chair. By habit, he looked upwards and saw Orion, the Big Dipper and the Pole Star, twinkling in the autumn sky.
He started to run the numbers in his head, then stopped. He knew he’d spent almost his entire savings on the house and would have to find a job again soon, but he pushed the thought away and decided to enjoy the remaining months of restoration without worrying about it. It would work out for him, he knew: it always did.
Cem, his hound dog, came up to him then and nuzzled his hand before lying down at his feet. Hey girl, how’re you doing?” he asked as he patted her head, and she whined softly, her soft round eyes peering upwards. A car accident had taken one of her legs, but she still moved well enough and kept him company on nights like these.
He was thirty-one now, not too old, but old enough to be lonely. He hadn’t dated since he’d been back here, hadn’t met anyone who remotely interested him, It was his own fault, he knew. There was something that kept a distance between him and any woman who started to get close, something he wasn’t sure he could change even if he tried. And sometimes, in the moments before sleep, he wondered if he was destined to be alone for ever.
The evening passed, staying warm, nice. Noah listened to the crickets and the rustling leaves, thinking that the sound of nature was more real and aroused more emotion than things like cars and planes. Natural things gave back more than they took, and their sounds always brought him back to the way man was supposed to he. There were times during the war, especially after a major engagement, when he had often thought about these simple sounds. “It’ll keep you from going crazy,” his father had told him the day he’d shipped out. “It’s God’s music and it’ll take you home.”
He finished his tea, went inside, found a book, then turned on the porch light on his way back out. After sitting down again, he looked at the book. It was old, the cover was torn, and the pages were stained with mud and water. It was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and he had carried it with him throughout the war. He let the book open randomly and read the words in front of him:
This is thy hour, 0 Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from hooks, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes
thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
He smiled to himself. For some reason Whitman always reminded him of New Bern, and he was glad he’d come back. Though he’d been away for fourteen years, this was home and he knew a lot of people here, most of them from his youth. It wasn’t surprising. Like so many southern towns, the people who lived here never changed, they just grew a bit older.
His best friend these days was Gus, a seventy-year-old black man who lived down the road. They had met a couple of weeks after Noah bought the house, when Gus had shown up with some homemade liquor and Brunswick stew, and the two had spent their first evening together getting drunk and telling stories.
Now Gus showed up a couple of nights a week, usually around eight. With four kids and eleven grandchildren in the house, he needed to get out now and then, and Noah couldn’t blame him. Usually Gus would bring his harmonica and, after talking for a little while, they’d play a few songs together.
He’d come to regard Gus as family. There really wasn’t anyone else, at least not since his father died last year. He was an only child and his mother had died of influenza when he was two. And though he had wanted to at one time, he had never married.
But he had been in love once, that he knew. Once and only once, and a long time ago. And it had changed him forever. Perfect love did that to a person, and this had been perfect.
Coastal clouds slowly began to roll across the evening sky, turning silver with the reflection of the moon. As they thickened, he leaned his head back against the rocking chair. His legs moved automatically, keeping a steady rhythm, and he felt his mind drifting back to a warm evening like this fourteen years ago.
It was just after graduation 1932, the opening night of the Neuse River Festival. The town was out in full, enjoying barbecues and games of chance. It was humid that night-for some reason he remembered that clearly. He arrived alone, and as he strolled through the crowd, looking for friends, he saw Fin and Sarah, two people he’d grown up with, talking to a girl he’d never seen before. She was pretty, he remembered thinking, and when he finally joined them, she looked his way with a pair of hazy eyes. “Hi,” she’d said simply as she offered her hand. “Finley’s told me a lot about you.”
An ordinary beginning, something that would have been forgotten had it been anyone but her. But as he shook her hand and met those striking emerald eyes, he knew before he’d taken his next breath that she was the one he could spend the rest of his life looking for but never find again. She seemed that good, that perfect.