The house was ten miles out of town, a hollow clearing inside a shelter of trees that thickened into deep woodland as it neared the river. Mr. Brook, the property owner, said it was small, a succession of rooms that faced the wrong way, shunning the sun. It had been built by the foreman of the old copper mine – another dark cave for his retirement. There were gardens though, haphazard as they were, following the path of the sun around the yard. Jay stepped gingerly around the remains of a bed sprawling with bolted lettuces, kale stalks thick and bending under their own weight. She pulled off a leaf, turned it over to find clusters of silver aphids huddled in the crevices. Everything would need to be pulled out, buried under layers of straw and leaves for a year. They could get rabbits, spread their droppings over the mulch. In a couple of years they’d have meat and vegetables. More than enough. They could build a coop under that elm tree, have some chickens too, eggs. She watched Charlie and Mr. Brook examining the pump for the well. Charlie primed the pump, worked the handle a few times, the muscles in his thin brown arm straining against rust and disuse. After a few minutes a gush of water spurted from the opening and he put a cupped hand down to catch some. When he’d brought it up to his mouth he looked at her and grinned, his black eyes disappearing behind the folds of his cheeks, the space where he’d lost a tooth showing darkly against his otherwise white smile. He raised a fist in mock victory. It hadn’t been easy finding a place to buy, even though they had the money in hand. No one in town would even consider selling to them, but Mr. Brook’s son had been in the war with Charlie.
Jay left the two men discussing the well and followed the faint sound of water into the woods. There was a stream somewhere, Mr. Brook had said, though the beavers had dammed most of it further up, and not much water got down this far any more. She pushed through fern and salal, a forest of mahonia, its sharp-edged leaves scratching at her bare ankles, until she found a thin trail – a deer path, probably – and the first sight of the stream. From there it was easy to follow the water all the way to the beaver dam, a large conical structure of cut branches and debris massed against a tree stump. Jay got as close as she could to it, kneeling on the bank, waiting for any movement. She heard a splash near the opposite bank, but saw nothing. She imagined coming down here in the winter with Charlie, bundled up, watching for warm beaver’s breath to come through the vent in the top of the dam. Mr. Brook said the property ended at the river and went to the rail line on the western side, so all this would be theirs -forest, trees, mahonia, stream, beavers. She found herself hoping the privy was workable, the roof sturdy enough for Charlie to say yes.
She returned to the house. She could hear Mr. Brook’s voice coming from around the back, near the privy, so she pushed open the front door, sneezed under the sudden assault of bird waste and dust. A mourning dove startled and rose in the air, making an elegant escape out a window to her left. Mr. Brook must have opened it before they’d arrived in hopes of airing the place out. She was standing in the main room, a large space, divided into the kitchen and living area. The kitchen consisted of a sink and a wood stove, a single set of shelves along the far wall. At least there was a window above the sink so she could look out over the garden while she worked. Charlie could build a counter so she’d have more space. The living area had another window, a fireplace, room for a couch, a couple of chairs. And they could put bookshelves in the corner. She went through to the back and found two more rooms, a bedroom and what seemed to be a large storage closet. It was the only room that held any clutter – a metal folding stool, a pair of well-worn boots, the tire from a small tractor, a pile of fabric – a shirt, perhaps – covered in mouse droppings. Mr. Brook had said the miner was a pack rat and there’d been a lot to get rid of after he died. He’d been lonely here, she suddenly knew.
When she came back into the front room, Mr. Brook was saying he’d give them some time to think about it, they could stop by his place on the way home and let him know. Charlie was standing in the middle of the room, staring at a dark spot on the wall. She hadn’t noticed it earlier. There were more spots, smaller, traveling up the wall and onto the ceiling. Mr. Brook cleared his throat, said he knew it was a hard decision. Jay watched him, his big face going red, his eyes blinking. He nodded, touched the brim of his cowboy hat, ducked his head to back out of the door. She looked at Charlie, so slight in comparison, his denim shirt bagging, the sleeves rolled up over his forearms, the cracked leather belt cinched tight to hold up the khaki pants he favored.
“How did he die?” she said when Mr. Brook’s white truck had pulled away. “The miner.”
Charlie turned to look at her. He had an expressive face though he had long ago learned to hide that around others. She could read the story there, as well as his reluctance to tell her.
“The house is good, Jay,” he said. “The roof, the well, the foundation. He built it strong.”
“Was it here?” she asked. How had she not noticed the stain at first? It was so prominent against the pale wood. She went to touch the edges of it with her finger.
“We’ll paint,” Charlie said. He wasn’t trying to convince her. They both knew this was more than they had dared hope for – their own house, land to grow vegetables, raise animals. She nodded.
“Mr. Brook is a good man,” Charlie said. “He’s giving us a good deal.”
“Because no one else is desperate enough to buy it,” said Jay sharply and looked away. They were silent then.
After awhile, when they had taken it in and accepted it, and the quiet had begun to fall over their hearts again she said, “I saw the beaver dam. And there is a lot of mahonia in the woods. I can make jelly this summer, tea for the winter.” An image came to her mind of white walls, herbs hanging in the kitchen, rows of canned goods lined up along the shelves next to the wooden bowls her mother had brought over from Japan, Charlie in the garden tying up beans.
They walked through the rooms once more, made a list of things to buy at the hardware store, closed the windows and locked them. At the door, Charlie turned back and made a deep bow to the interior of the house. Jay could feel the gratitude he was offering flowing through the rooms like a cool breeze. This humility was how he had survived, how he had made a life for them. She reached for his hand and bowed herself, sending out her courage, her willingness. Home. Happiness began to rise in her like a dove.