They continued uphill, Charlie trying hard to disguise his breathlessness, aware as always of the pounding of his heart. Apart from the clumping of their footgear on loose rock, and the occasional slide of shale, there was silence all around them, no birdsong, no hum of insect life, not even the rustling of leaves. A broad path of beaten earth, thick with trampled leaves, intercepted their road at right angles. They followed it.
‘You know, it’s a funny thing, but though I’ve lived in Gatineau for half a century, I’ve never been up this hill.’
‘No. I was never a skier, nor was your mother, and I never thought of coming up a ski hill in the off-season. It’s odd. I just assumed it was off-limits, or closed down.’
‘Come and look!’ The twins’ cries called them to the edge of the forest, where a break signaled a precipitous decline. A sign there warned skiers “Descente Tres Difficile.” The slope, covered in rough scrubby plants and wild grass, plunged dramatically down to a panorama of vivid autumnal colour as far as the eye could see. There were occasional breaks in the canopy of leaves where a lake winked in the distance, or a silver spire marked a forgotten hamlet, and even grassy slopes like their own on hills nearby, all at peace, sleeping in the sun. Even the twins were hushed by the adults’ contemplation.
Tabby broke the silence.
‘It’s all so pretty. I just love it’ she said.
His heart too full for adequate reply, Charlie merely murmured ‘Yes, Tab, it is’ and patted her head. He then said,
‘All these years, and I never knew this place! I’m so glad to have seen it, to have seen this place.’
In the car, he recalled Sunday’s sermon. Be thankful. Take nothing for granted, for life is precious and time fleeting. Be grateful for every blessing. Hold on to those you love and those who love you. He thought of Noemi, and of Jamie, after whom Jarvis was nicknamed Javey, their first-born, a brother to Carole and Rob, whom they had never known, who lay beside his mother in the little cemetery behind the mill in Wakefield.
They all fussed around him in the house before they left for the airport to return the SUV and await the evening flight to Toronto. While Carole stocked the fridge and freezer, in part with her own cooking, Jarvis fixed a loose board on the steps, raked the leaves, and put away summer furniture. Then, in a chorus of cheerful farewells they were gone, and the house resumed its untenanted appearance, empty beds newly made, clean freshly-ironed tea towels in the immaculate kitchen, a new soap dispenser in the bathroom, and the voice of the grandfather clock in the spotless hall now inordinately loud. An elaborate gift basket from Rob’s family, full of nuts and biscuits, assorted cheeses and expensive chocolate and little jars of preserves took pride of place on the polished dining-room table.
The sun set behind the house in a blaze of glory, briefly transfiguring the empty deck with golden radiance before Charlie pulled the curtains behind the glass-topped table in front of the living-room window, on which rested a gallery of family photographs. He touched each one in turn, lingering over that of Noemi, softening at the sight of her secret half-smile and turned-up nose, so pronounced a feature of her daughter and grand-daughter, now frozen timeless in its frame. ‘Action de grace,’ he thought. ‘ I am blessed.’
That night, unusually tired, he sank gratefully into a deep sleep, during which he dreamed of all of them in turn, and of others he had long forgotten. Towards daybreak, the darkness around his bed imperceptibly lightened, chastened shadows retreated submissively to their corners, and the room began to fill with pale pre-dawn light, warming into familiar colours of gold and blue, yellow and red, flaming orange, ochre, and terracotta, all over again. He heard soft voices amidst a rustling of leaves, but could not make out what they were saying. As he strained to catch their elusive rhythm, the light became painfully bright, the colours combined into a great white light, intense and purposeful. The phrase from the old hymn—‘in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’—came instantly to his mind, and then, all at once, he knew this place no more.
Ottawa, Action de Grace (Thanksgiving), 2013.