My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
-Sweet Afton, Nickel Creek
A cold autumn wind blew across the cobble-stone road, sending red, yellow, and brown leaves into small waves, chasing each other back onto the dying grass. Dazzling, empty blue sky stretched above, accenting those leaves that still clung to their branches. Beside the few spontaneous bird-chirps, everything was silent, sorrowfully peaceful. Clattering horse’s hooves were heard in the distance, causing a worm-hunting robin to pause in its search. The hooves’ rhythm slowed and finally stopped outside the small iron-gate. A man dismounted carefully, yet with practiced ease. His eyes matched the sky above him.
Patting his horse, the man looked over the fence at the scattered stones and leaves. His hair–once black–was nearly completely grey. When he saw the stone he searched for, he gave his horse a final pat, then walked to the gate and pushed it open. The rusty squeak it gave out startled the robin, who flew to hide in a tree. Looking after it with almost a wistful expression, the man turned to the gravel path and to his stone.
Crunch, crunch, said the pebbles and leaves he stepped upon. It sounded lonesome, aching. The man walked as if through a haze; his feet were both weary and eager. Finally he reached the rock, placed under a golden willow tree. He stood before as he had countless times, studying the cracking edges, fading letters, the layer of leaves covering it.
Then, gingerly, he knelt. He ran his hand over the top of the rock, watching dirt and leaves abandon their place. Afterwards he freed the front of the stone from its dying weeds. When he was satisfied with his work, he rocked back on his heels and read:
Mother, Wife, Sister, and Friend
“Grace like a flood saved me...
Praise your Lord, O my heart”
“You always loved that hymn,” the man murmured. In the tree, the robin observed him. A melancholy smile played on his lips. “Remember when we used to sing it on the road?”
Of course, the stone remained silent. Curious, the robin flew down and landed a few stones away. It now recognized the man as a frequent visitor to the stone garden.
After a few minutes, the man shifted and continued his talk. “It’s hard to imagine that we have been parted eleven years. Did you remember that this is our twenty-fifth anniversary?” He slid a hand into his pocket. “I made you something. None of the children understand, I think, why I still make you presents.” Glinting light came from his hand as he pulled out a slender rope-like object, which drew the robin closer. “Except, maybe, Clara.” Holding the silver necklace cupped in his hand, he paused again. “It’s not as good as the one I made on our first anniversary–my hands haven’t worked as well since I burned them two years back.” He winced at the memory.
A breeze pulled at his cloak, and with his free hand he gathered it closer. Looking at the necklace, he continued, “I made that leaf design you used to love.” Tracing it with his fingers, he smiled slightly. “Though your hair always got caught in it. I guess that won’t matter now.”
Gently he sat it at the base of the grave. Closing his eyes, he seemed to become absent from the earth. The robin spotted a bug not far away and ran after it. Lost in memories, the man did not notice.
He drew a deep, almost ragged breath, frightening the robin to the safety of a tree.
His voice had grown hoarse. “I hope you take time to look at Banon, our little girl. She’s nearly eleven. You would be so proud of her–I’m sure you are. She asked me yesterday what you liked to do. I showed her your needlework, and your journal. I gave that to her to read–thought you’d like it that way. Clara's the only mother she’s ever known, but she still has a need for you. We all do.
A faint smile played on his face after a few minutes of silence. “It seems like John’s maturity has finally caught up with his age. Yesterday he came by grinning like it was his birthday and told me he’d gotten himself engaged. He’s very happy, probably the first time he’s really been in years–at least the first time it’s lasted more than a few hours. He’ll likely be by here soon to tell you about it.”
The man fell silent again, studying the stone. He was immersed in thought. The robin grew tired of watching and flew to another stone, waiting patiently for him to leave so it could inspect the necklace he’d set down.
Slowly the man put his second and third fingers together, touching them to his lips and then placing them on the hard, cold stone. "Farewell, my love.”
He stood, stretching himself slightly and grunting as his cramped joints protested. Without saying more, he turned down the pebble walkway toward the gate and his horse. Instead of mounting, he took its reigns and led it down the road. The clip clop of hooves and boots soon faded into the distance.
The robin, seeing he had abandoned his necklace, flew to it and took it with him to his nest in a tree. He set it beside the rings, bracelets, and other trinkets he’d acquired in his years.
Seasons later, the old robin was returning to his nest, avoiding the falling leaves that sought to confuse him. He glanced at the man’s stone, and saw something that puzzled him.
The stone was no longer alone.
After that day, the man did not visit it any more.