On her third day at the manor, day three of pinprick rain and cold mist hanging in the air, Bert grows tired of mooning at the windows, waiting for the rain to stop, and decides to head out into the wet afternoon. She pulls on a sweater, yanks her gray woolen cape off its hook, then unfurls it around herself. She bends to lace up her brown boots, and finally, she puts on her hat with the earflaps she likes. As she stands in the kitchen on her way out, hand on the knob, she watches a rabbit at the far end of the scraggy lawn as it watches her. The rabbit looks skittish, poised for flight, and she can only hope that over the decades she’s gained more of a sense of bearing, of her right to occupy space, than this. She opens the door to step out of the house, and the rabbit flicks its tail and disappears.
The Littlejohns, who own the manor, are an elderly couple Bert has only corresponded with, never met. “Dear Roberta,” Mr. Littlejohn wrote in his austere script in his third and final letter to her, “Please enjoy your stay.” The Littlejohns live in the manor for part of the year, and the rest of the time they keep it as a writers’ retreat where they let established authors stay for months at a time. The manor is in a town nestled in a foggy valley not far from the winding Susquehanna, in a part of the world where Revolutionary battles were fought and musket shot still rises to the surface of the fields after a hard rain. The Littlejohns run a three-line ad in the back of a few literary publications, terse and modest but enough to catch Bert’s eye. And because of the arrangement and the way it was described in the ad, Bert assumed the Littlejohns were reverential about the authors they hosted, that the notion of helping writers gave them a sense of purpose. She imagined that they had reached a certain age and had sat down together to talk about giving something back to the world of letters that had given them so much. But none of this seemed to be the case; in her correspondence with Mr. Littlejohn, he was matter-of-fact and didn’t seem particularly interested in her as a person or even as a writer. Still, though he was remote, he was not unkind: in a letter, he told her she should feel free to ride the horse they kept at the manor, explaining its personality and a couple of local paths in some detail, and went on to tell her to prevail on the caretaker or the cook if there was anything at all she needed.
When Bert got to the manor in the beginning of February, laden with notebooks and novels for her six-week stay, she realized her head was full of all sorts of images she’d conjured from Mr. Littlejohn’s letters, very few of which turned out to correspond to reality. Though Mr. Littlejohn had never said a word about the grounds, for some reason, she’d been picturing a lush lawn and green, green trees. In reality, at that time of year the manor grounds were still quite brown and dead, the sky stern overhead, scraps of muddy snow daubed under the trees. It had been a harsh winter, and clearly it would still be a long time before much of anything sprouted.
Also, contrary to Bert’s image of the horse, which she later realized was really an image of a pony from a county fair, the horse turned out to be a big chestnut gelding that looked too majestic for the muddy little paddock. Mr. Littlejohn never mentioned the horse’s name in his letters, but Bert now knows from the caretaker that it’s Clover, which makes her feel sorry for the horse: all that power and beauty wrapped up in such a boring name. She wonders who named him — the Littlejohns? a granddaughter of theirs?—and hopes the horse doesn’t know how hopelessly ordinary its name is.
In the manor parlor, a taxidermied crow perches on a branch. He’s so expertly stuffed that it looks as if he’s about to let out a cry and fly off. Sometime soon after she arrived, Bert started talking to the crow out of sheer need, and now she talks to him all the time; she tells him everything. She tells him how she can’t seem to get started with her writing. She tells him about her strange, vivid dreams; about her thoughts on the far-off city life she’s left behind, how Berkeley looks from this vantage point, how she’s changed her mind about teaching a couple of the books on the reading list for one of her classes, and about how, however convenient it may be at the moment that Phoebe, her daughter, still lives at Bert’s apartment and can water the plants while she’s gone (if in fact she’s even bothering to do this), she wishes Phoebe would find her own apartment once and for all, and get her own car. And not mention her father’s new wife quite so often, though Bert knows that’s not even reasonable.
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