I listen to the recent spate of voice mail messages on the home answering machine, methodically deleting all but two: the one from Eleanor informing my wife that her open heart surgery would be postponed, and the other from Eleanor’s niece the morning after Eleanor’s surgery. I tap the play button and listen to both voices again, one right after the other, even though a week has elapsed between the two.
“Let them be,” my wife calls from the other room. “Don’t delete them.”
“I wasn’t going to,” I say; then as an afterthought I add: “I’m heading out for a walk in the woods. Be back later this afternoon.”
I drive half an hour to a friend’s house and we strike out into the nearby forest. It’s a steady climb to reach the ridge. The vernal pools at the top are teaming with mosquitoes. We hurry on past the tall stands of mountain laurel not yet in full bloom and descend to the trailhead on the opposite side. There, nestled among the pine needles that carpet the forest floor, pink lady’s slippers bask in the soft afternoon light.
“I know where there’s a stand of them,” my friend tells me. “Down by the lake.” He explains how to find them. Perhaps I might be able to get there later next week, I think; but I know that soon they will be gone.
We strike out on a new trail through the tall pines. Vireos call from the tops overhead. The distant note of a wood pee-wee drifts in on the warm forest air. We pass another vernal pool and turn onto a new trail that crosses a wooden footbridge just below the beaver swamp. Up ahead we encounter the massive stone foundation of a colonial farmhouse hidden in the old growth forest.
Further along the path, deep in the woods, a veery trills his flute-like riffs. At Beaver Brook we pick up the narrow road again and follow it out to the country road. Shortly, we are surprised by an owl perched in a tree high overhead. It stares down at us with coal-black eyes for a full minute before dropping down silently into the forest.
Back home, seated by my wife, I click through the day’s digital photos. “The pink lady’s slippers were over a foot high,” I tell her.
She musters a nonchalant nod. I know she is thinking of other things.
It’s rather an odd thing to have the still small voice of a newly deceased neighbor bottled up in voice mail coupled with the announcement of her death the day after surgery from her niece.
A walk in the woods only serves to distract the mind temporarily. By the end of next week the pink lady’s slippers will have dried on their stalks, delicate ephemeral blossoms withered away in a woodland underworld.