Part 40: Gunboat’s Tale
The further we walked from Orchard House, the less we heard and saw of the people. The orchard went further back than I thought, and as we neared the edges the trees grew heavier and were spaced closer together. Pretty soon the rows seemed to disappear, and as we climbed a small hill the house we had been looking for came into view.It was a downsized version of Orchard House itself. Instead of two stories, this house was just one floor, and whereas our place, as we had come to call it, was almost in a “L” shape with its large side porch, this house looked like a small cottage facing the orchard with its back to a thick stand of woods.
“Over the hills and through the woods to Grandma’s house we go,” I muttered.
Summer laughed. “So this is where Hansel and Gretel went.”
“I’ll try not to eat their house.”
It did look like a fairy tale cottage. Flower boxes were under every window. The shutters were painted rose red against the snow white frame of the home. It had a small front porch with barely enough room for a hanging porch swing and the front door itself. On the swing sat an elderly woman who appeared to be knitting something in her lap. She didn’t see us until we reached the foot of the porch. It was then she looked up. Her unfocused eyes slowly took us in, as if her brain were sifting through her memories to see if she recognized us. It was apparent she didn’t.
I put one foot on the porch steps. “Excuse me, mam,” I said. “We’re staying at Orchard House over there. My name is Matthew Dean. This is Summer. Are you Hope by any chance?”
It seemed to take a few seconds for it to register, but upon hearing her name she smiled. “I’m Hope,” she said.
Summer started up the steps. “Hope, we were talking to your daughter at the store and she said we should come see you.”
“Ah, my Helen. How is she?”
“She is fine. A little busy with the festival today though.”
She smiled. “Oh yes, I used to enjoy the festival myself. I’m afraid I don’t get around like I used to. This porch is about close as I get these days.” A wistful look crossed her face. “But I can still hear the music sometimes. Sounds carries well out here.” She seemed to be pondering on something and then looked up and past us into the orchard. “Why, just last night I thought I heard some squealing coming from out there. Wasn’t a hog slaughter, sounded too happy for that.”
Summer turned to look at me, her face already blushing up. Mine was too, as I recalled the way Summer let out a delighted squeal when I had given chase in the orchard the night before.
“It made me think of when I was younger and my sweet fellow would chase me through the orchard. The first time he kissed me was right here on this spot. Wasn’t a house here then.”
I walked carefully up onto the porch and Summer reached for my hand, which I happily took. I looked at the old woman, her soft eyes meeting mine. I noticed she wore a ring on her finger, the very same one she had once refused to wear. “Hope, the reason I’m here is I’m a writer and I was hoping you would give me permission to tell the story of you and your husband.”
Before she could answer the screen door beside the swing opened and an old man stepped out onto the porch. It was apparent he was approaching his nineties if not already there, but he moved just as spry as if he was forty years younger. City people of his age didn’t move like that or look half as healthy as he did. I imagined if he wanted to, he could still get out in the orchard and work all day with no problem.
“What is it you’re wanting permission for?” he asked, running one hand through his white hair. He looked over at Summer and his eyes took in the fact we were holding hands. For a moment I thought he might smile, but he was all business, and perhaps a bit protective of his still blushing bride.
“Are you Gunboats?” I asked.
Now he smiled. “Can’t say I have heard that name in recent memory, and especially not by a stranger, but yes, that’s me. Now who you might be?”
I held out my hand. “Matthew Dean, sir. This is my girlfriend Summer. We were talking to Helen at the store about finding romance at Orchard House, and she started telling us about you and Hope. I’m a writer and was hoping maybe to write down your story.”
He seemed to think about it for a moment, casting a glance to each of us before looking at his wife. She looked up at him, and even at their age it was easy to see they still got lost in each other’s eyes. He leaned down and kissed her cheek. Then he looked at me. “Let’s take a walk, son, while your lady sits with mine and talks about…well, whatever ladies talk about when we’re not around.”
I kissed Summer on the cheek and followed the old man down the steps. He moved pretty quickly for his age and I followed him as he walked around the house and into the back yard. A gravel drive turned into a dirt road that led from the back and into the woods. At the head of the drive sat an old pick up. Close to the house was a vegetable garden surrounded by a small fence. In its center sat a picnic table. Gunboats stopped at the drive.
“We don’t mind if you write about us as long as it’s not like an old dime store novel, all trash and no truth.”
“No sir, I promise to keep it clean. I just want to tell the story of you and your wife. It’s an interesting tale from what I have heard so far. And I really want to use the story of your romance to tell about Orchard House. That’s where Summer and I have been staying and it seems to have had a pleasant effect on us.”
He grinned. “I know that feeling. Sure had a pleasant effect on me too.” He started walking down the drive towards the dirt road and I followed. “But you don’t need to write about us to tell the world about Orchard House. Write about yourselves. I took one look at you two and I knew you are going through the same stuff we did..strangers meet, fall in love, get married…”
I glanced at him with what must have been a incredulous look because he laughed.
“Yes. Get married. Don’t let this get away from you, son. The war almost took my Hope from me. Don’t let any wars you might be going through take your… what’s her name again?”
“Ah yes, Summer. Fits her perfect. Hope and Summer, almost sounds like sisters, don’t it?”
“Yes sir, it does.”
“Let me ask you something, Matthew.”
“Okay, go ahead.”
“When you look at her, and I mean really look at her, do you honestly think you can live without her?”
“I don’t know.”
“I was in a ditch in the Ardennes when I realized I couldn’t live without Hope. Had bullet fragments lodged close to my heart. And as I lay there thinking I was dying with all this madness of war around me, all I could think of was, God please let me give this ring to Hope so she’ll know that I can’t ever live without her. So I took that ring and gave it to a buddy of mine, along with the last letter she wrote to me, and told him to make sure she got it. Because I thought then I was dying, and I look at you and I see that same look in your eyes, like you been dying a long time. You might not have been in a war, but shrapnel from something got close to your heart.“ He sighed heavily and stopped to look at me. “Don’t you give up and die in no ditch, boy. See, I gave that ring to my buddy and the more I lay there in the mud and blood, I knew I wanted to see Hope with that ring on her finger if it was the last thing I ever saw. It was that thought alone that made me crawl out of that ditch and get back to life. See, before Hope I had no purpose. No reason. No will to live beyond the moment. But once that ring left my possession and was on its way back home to her, I knew without even thinking twice I wanted to be with her forever. And I would go through hell or high water to get back to her. Because if I liked her before I went to war, I was going to love her with all the time I had left. I tell you, when you see a ring on Summer’s finger you’ll know what it means to love someone so much that forever just don’t seem long enough. What I’m trying to say, and maybe I don’t know you, but I believe I do, your coming to Orchard House wasn’t anymore an accident than when I arrived there myself. I came there looking for something totally different than what I ended up finding, and so did you. You can hide it from the womenfolk, but you can’t hide it from someone who’s been there. As men, we all find our ditches to die in, but that ditch in the Ardennes wasn’t mine, and your ditch out in the orchard ain’t yours.”
He patted me on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get back to the house. Believe it or not, my Hope still makes one mean cup of tea. I’m sure they both have drunk nearly the whole kettle while we been gabbing.”
I followed Gunboats as he headed back up the drive, letting the things he had told me about the Ardennes and the ring sink in. I knew I had to tell Summer once and for all how I truly felt, not just about her, but everything. She had to know the truth, I couldn’t hide it from her any longer. I just didn’t know how to tell her.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.