The Cottage on the Hill
by J. Robert Lennon, recommended by Unstuck
EDITOR’S NOTE by Matt Williamson
J. Robert Lennon writes “literary fiction,” but he’s the sort of literary fiction writer who grew up on sci-fi paperbacks and crime novels, and never forgot what the pulp masters taught him. He’s culturally omnivorous, adventurous, and fearless. Funny and unsettling are two things he does well; boring, he’s not as good at.
“The Cottage on the Hill” is a horror story, but it’s a J. Robert Lennon horror story, in which the characters’ loneliness — their disconnectedness, their inability, at times, even to speak or listen to one another — is more chilling than any of the supernatural elements. Like his new book, Familiar (which he calls “a horror novel about parenthood”), “Cottage” puts us in a world where our children and partners may be aliens or enemies, and where — the scariest part — we may not be able to prevent ourselves from hurting, terrorizing, or even destroying the people we most want to protect.
Two years ago, when my colleagues and I started soliciting writers for what would become the first issue of Unstuck, J. Robert Lennon was one of the first people we reached out to. Like Kevin Brockmeier, Kelly Link, and Brian Evenson, he’s a writer whose work can fit as naturally in Weird Tales as in Tin House — and is perhaps especially well suited to a journal like ours, which seeks to celebrate stories that slip between categories, or that simply defy categorization. With “The Cottage on the Hill,” he gave our young literary magazine and its early subscribers a real gift, which we’re excited, now, to pass on to you; by turns mysterious, nightmarish, and mournful, it’s a story that’s difficult to pull away from, and then hard to forget.
Executive Editor, Unstuck
The Cottage on the Hill
J. Robert Lennon
THE FIRST TIME RICHARD visited the cottage on the hill, he was in his early thirties and still married to his wife. Their children were small — the daughter 6, the son only 3 — and they still believed that their problems were temporary. It was agreed that the family should take a short vacation together, as a break from the stresses of work and home.
They learned of the existence of the cottage from a man in their town, a laborer whom they hired to replace a rotting porch beam. The man told them that he had stayed in it himself, on a hunting trip, and that it was beautifully well-appointed and largely unknown even to those who lived nearby. That’s because it was owned by the gas company, on land where they held a drilling claim, land not generally available to the casual hiker or hunter. But if you called the gas company — the specific substation the cottage was near, not the main number — and asked to rent the cottage, they would offer you a very attractive rate, and allow you to hunt on the surrounding land.
Richard and his wife, Evelyn, did not hunt, but he found this strange arrangement appealing, and they agreed that the cottage sounded like a good place to get away for a little while. Evidently there was a lake nearby, and the gas company provided wood for the woodstove (it was spring and still chilly at night) and a rowboat and fishing tackle. Richard phoned the gas company substation and made the proper arrangements, and a few weeks later drove the ninety minutes to the site, which lay on a gravel road deep in the woods near a small dilapidated town.
The substation itself was a low cinder block structure surrounded by a chain-link fence, and when they pulled in at a mechanically operated gate, an attendant stopped them and asked, with some hostility, what business they had here.
“We’re staying at the cottage,” Richard said through the open car window.
The attendant, a stocky man in his fifties with an imposing brow and gruff manner, softened immediately. He offered Richard a broad smile and an awkward handshake. “Oh, you’ll love it, sir. My wife and I spent our honeymoon there. A lovely place.” The man peered into the back of their car and winked at the children. Richard and Evelyn enjoyed a laugh at the man’s expense on the way up the hill from the substation. A honeymoon, here? But it was the first laugh they’d shared in some time, and they both felt that the vacation had gotten off to a fine start.
The hill, steep by the standards of the area, was grassy and treeless, save for a towering oak that stood at its summit. This oak, it turned out, sheltered the cottage itself, a compact, two-story building sided with yellow clapboard. Beyond the cottage, the hill sloped gently away into woods that bordered the lake. At first, Richard was dismayed by the fact that the substation was not only visible from here, but dominated the view in that direction. The opposite view, however, of the lake and trees and distant rolling hills, was so delightful that it more than compensated for the substation’s utilitarian ugliness.
While the children played in the grass, Richard and Evelyn went inside to unpack their things. The cottage interior was strange — darkly paneled, and divided into what seemed like too many very small rooms. There was a tiny kitchen and sitting room on the first floor, along with a master bedroom barely larger than the bed it contained. A bureau was wedged into a small closet. Upstairs was the bathroom and, further along a narrow hall, two more bedrooms, each of these even smaller than the one downstairs, large enough only for one small cot apiece. Odd framed photographs hung on the walls, curled black-and-white images of heavily clothed people posed outdoors and staring blankly at the camera. And the construction of the house was such that, despite its small size, it never seemed to truly reveal its shape and dimensions; it would prove vexing, in the days to come, to find the door to the stairway, or to orient oneself upon exiting, even though nothing changed and the layout could not be simpler. The cottage also had an unusual though not unpleasant odor, a bit like roasting nuts or burnt chocolate, the origin of which could not be determined. For all that, though, the place seemed quite suitable for the family outing, and they chose to ignore the shortcomings of the place and enjoy, as best they could, each other’s company.
For the better part of a week, Richard and Evelyn and the children told stories around the fire, went fishing and boating, walked in the woods, cooked rustic meals, and sang along to songs on Richard’s guitar. As the days passed, employees could be seen to come and go down below at the substation, and sometimes they caught sight of the family and waved. It was a funny little vacation, but it had, at least for a while, the intended effect — Evelyn and Richard regained some of their closeness, and they enjoyed their children more than ever before. Many times over the next few years, Richard would look up from his desk with a wistful memory of those days at the cottage behind the substation, wishing it were easier to restore to his family the good feelings the trip had generated. But nothing lasts, he reasoned, most of all those things on which we place the greatest value.
The next time Richard returned to the cottage was eight years later, when his daughter, Lila, was a teenager, and his son, Gregory, an adolescent. He and Evelyn had been divorced for some years, their parting acrimonious and irreconcilable. Indeed, the two had not spoken since they separated, and even took care, whenever they exchanged the children, not to enter into the other’s line of sight. Evelyn would put the children on a bus to Richard’s apartment, and a in few days Richard dropped them off a block away from Evelyn’s house, making sure each time that the door opened to admit them, before he drove away. No particular event had precipitated their break; they had simply grown to hate one another. Evelyn had had an affair, most likely; Richard had not, but confessed to one anyway, as it was less painful to lie than to admit he no longer loved his wife at all. In fact Richard had found it hard, since the divorce, to find any satisfying female companionship, and at times he wondered if he was actually destined to be lonely.
The children and he did not get along. Evelyn, he believed, had poisoned their minds against him. As far as he knew, he might have done the same to her; he didn’t think so, but it was difficult to conceal from his children his distaste for their mother, even in the best of circumstances. In any event, he was inclined to blame himself as much as he blamed her for his problems with Lila and Greg.
It was the guilt he felt for these very failings that led him to investigate the possibility of spending a few days with the children at the cottage. Perhaps they would remember the fun they had there, and their relationship with their father could, to some extent, be repaired. After some deliberation, and with only a few days to go until the children’s next visit, Richard decided to book the cottage. It took an hour of rifling through old papers to discover the phone number of the substation, and it was with a sense of real triumph and optimism that he called it. But instead of the crisp gas company salutation, all he heard on the end of the line was a glum, slurred hello.
“I’m sorry, is this the gas company substation?”
“Pardon me. Is this 535–9912?”
“Yeah. It used to be the gas company, now it ain’t.”
It was the voice of a woman, tired and perhaps in her cups.
Richard apologized for bothering her. “Do you happen to know the gas company’s new number?”
After a pause, the voice said, “Nah, they’re long gone. It’s us here now. The place was converted.”
For a moment, Richard was uncertain what she meant. Then, “You mean the substation?” he said.
“So you’re…” He struggled to understand. “It’s the same place as before, then. At the bottom of the hill. And you live there now?”
Richard cleared his throat. “I was actually calling…well, I must ask you, is the cottage still there? On the hill?”
There was another pause, longer this time, as though the woman were reaching far back into her memory. “Oh, hell. Sure. Sure, that’s still there.” Suddenly her voice took on some enthusiasm. “You want to rent it out, is that it?”
“Well…that’s what I’d hoped. But if it’s out of repair…”
“Oh, no, you can have it, it’s just fine. I can send Ted up there to get it ready. No, it’s fine, available for rent and everything.” The woman was quite excited now, talking more quickly, seeming to be thinking out loud. “Oh, I can clean those curtains…and maybe give it a quick coat of paint. And firewood, we’ll have to haul some firewood up there…”
“Really,” Richard said. “I don’t want to be a bother. If the place isn’t habitable anymore, I really…”
“Oh, it’s habitable. Oh, it’s habitable.”
“Well, that’s very good news. Ah…but…I was thinking of coming up in just a few days. Sunday, to be precise.”
“Sunday!” A bit of doubt seemed to have entered the woman’s voice, but it was quickly dispelled. “Oh, that’s no trouble at all, sir, no trouble! I’ll just send Ted up there right away! And we’ll get you some clean sheets and fill up the fridge with good things to eat.”
“That’s not necessary…”
“Maybe some fresh bread and lunchmeat and what have you,” the woman said, “and a nice bowl of fruit. Nothing makes a place seem homey like a nice bowl of fruit, wouldn’t you say?” There was no arguing with her — in the end Richard was forced to go ahead and book the cottage for three days. He didn’t feel good about it, but if he remembered correctly, the original trip to the cottage hadn’t seemed ideal at first, and they ended up having a wonderful time.
When he told the children where they would be spending their weekend together, he was rather disappointed by their reactions. Greg merely shrugged — he had no recollection of the cottage and didn’t seem to care what they did. And Lila crossed her arms over her breasts and scowled. “Fine,” she said, as if the trip were some kind of punishment. Her eyes were dark with mascara and eyeliner and her belly pooched out over the button on her jeans. He felt a wave of tenderness towards her, toward the troubles of her age, but quickly quashed it, wary of disrupting the unspoken truce between them.
On the way to the cottage, Greg fell asleep in the back seat while Lila sat, arms still crossed, on the passenger side, occasionally glaring at Richard with disarming steadiness and anger. “What is it?” he asked her, several times, and it was only on the third try that she replied, “You know.”
“I wish you’d just come out with it,” she said. “Dad.” This term of endearment was uttered with such bitterness and venom that for a moment Richard had to stifle a deep sigh. What had he done wrong?
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said, weakly, but her only reply was a grunt.
Richard drove past the former substation twice before he recognized it: everything had changed. The chain link fence was gone, and the cinderblock building had been replaced by a trailer, the sort that usually serves as a temporary office on a construction site. The only evidence that this was ever a gas company facility was a cluster of disused, rusted iron pipes sticking out of the ground at the edge of the lot. The lot itself was overgrown with weeds, and an old pickup truck was parked in a pair of tire ruts.
It was with some trepidation that Richard knocked on the door. The woman who answered was not as he expected — she was younger, for one thing, close to his own age. And she was quite attractive — glamorous-looking, even. She wore a gingham dress and a bobbed hairdo, like a woman of the distant past, and winked at him when he introduced himself. “Well, I sure hope you all have a wonderful time,” she said. “Ted’s up there now, just finishing up.”
“I appreciate that,” Richard said. “We’re hoping to go down for a row on the lake.”
Her face darkened. “Not sure what you’ll find down there. Something, anyway.”
Now the woman seemed evasive, and sounded more the way she had when she answered the phone, tired and old. She withdrew a few inches into the trailer.
“I guess you’ll be wanting to get up there, then…”
“But where’s the road?” Richard asked. Because the dirt track that had once led to the cottage seemed to be missing.
“Road? You can’t drive up there, is that what you mean?”
It was true, the hillside did appear steeper than before, and strewn with rocks and wild shrubs. Perhaps he misremembered their drive up the hill, years before. He turned back to the woman to tell her this, but she had disappeared, and the door had closed. A small faded sign on it read, Onteo Energy.
Richard and the children gathered their suitcases and sack of food and began the long trudge up the muddy hillside. Several times each of them slipped and dropped their possessions in the mud. Gregory banged his knee against a rock, and Lila seemed to be muttering something under her breath. When Richard got close enough, he thought he heard her say, Fucking bastard. Fucking abuser. He considered asking her what she meant but thought better of it.
When at last they reached the top, it was nearly dark, and Richard wondered if they had made some kind of mistake. The cottage was not as he recalled. The tree was still there, but the structure itself was lower, broader. The second floor seemed to be missing entirely, and the clapboards were wider, and painted a peeling white. Furthermore, the former gas company grounds could no longer be seen from the hilltop, and the view on the far side was drastically different. The lake he remembered was gone — only a weedy marsh seemed to lie in the valley below, and the hills did not appear as tall as they once did. Indeed, if they were there at all, they were obscured by fog. The terrain was very rocky and unforgiving, and he began to feel a terrible sense of dread.
His thoughts were interrupted by a hearty hello from a middle-aged man with a pronounced limp, who emerged from beneath the eaves of the cottage. He wore bib overalls and a bushy gray beard. It was hard to imagine him as the woman’s husband — perhaps they were related some other way.
“Got it all ready for you, sir,” he said.
“It looks quite different,” Richard told him. “I thought I remembered a second floor.”
The man shook his head. “Wasn’t one when we bought it. Though I remember some talk about work having been done.”
“It looks like an entirely different cottage, actually.”
But the man didn’t seem to want to talk; indeed, he appeared thoroughly disgusted with Richard, the cottage, and the entire situation. Then he looked over Richard’s shoulder and seemed to catch sight of something. Richard turned. Only the children stood there, staring at the ground.
“Those your kids?”
“Yes, they are.”
“Well, we don’t allow no kids here.” The man folded his arms across his chest.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to make an exception. Your wife told me nothing of the sort.”
“We don’t like the noise,” the man went on.
“But there’s nothing for miles around!”
“Sound travels out here. Anyway, we’ll make an exception this time. Just tell ’em to keep the noise down. Evelyn has a condition.” And he turned and disappeared below the curve of the hill.
As it happened, the inside of the cottage was rather familiar after all. The kitchen cabinets were the same, and the paneling, and the old photo of the expressionless people. The bedrooms were the same, too, although they were even smaller than Richard remembered, nearly touching the beds on all sides, and had somehow been moved to the lower floor. Luckily there was a television, and Lila and Greg were able to watch movies all evening as Richard read a book. At one point a phone rang, and there was a comical search for it; they finally found it improbably hung inside a cabinet. It was Ted, asking them to turn the TV down. But by this time, the children were tired, and decided to simply switch the set off and go to sleep.
Richard woke during the night to the sound of whispering, coming through the wall behind his head. What if he comes in? said one voice, Lila’s, he thought.
I won’t let him.
He’s bigger than you.
I could kill him if I had to.
In the morning, Richard wasn’t certain he had heard the conversation at all.
By the middle of the following afternoon it was clear that the trip had been a mistake. The children wouldn’t talk to him, except to ask him repeatedly if they could go home. He convinced them to take a walk down to the marsh, in the hope that they might fine a hiking path or creek, but neither was in evidence, and they were forced to climb back up, becoming dirty and sweaty as they did so. The last straw came while Richard was standing alone, looking out over the depressing landscape, and heard a shuffling behind him. It was Lila.
“Hi, sweetie,” he said.
“Why don’t you just do it and get it over with,” she said.
Her voice trembled and there were tears in her eyes.
“Do what? I don’t understand.”
“You’ll take what you want eventually, so why don’t you just do it now?”
“Lila, I’m becoming quite annoyed by this behavior. I don’t know what you’re referring to, or why you seem so angry at me.”
“I hate you!” she shouted, and stormed off down the hill towards the road.
In the end, he decided that there was no point in staying. He and Greg gathered their things, closed up the cottage, and set off down the hill. They found Lila already sitting in the car, fast asleep. Richard knocked on the door to tell the strange couple they were leaving, but they weren’t home. Indeed, the place looked abandoned — through the window, nothing could be seen but a desk, a filing cabinet, some forgotten office supplies.
He drove back to town and dropped off the children one block from their mother’s house.
It was twenty years before he returned to the cottage. His children were grown and moved away, and Evelyn, his ex-wife, had died. He had hoped, once, to remarry, but had never found a suitable partner. In the end, Richard was satisfied with his solitude and didn’t wish to disrupt it.
A business trip was to bring him across the state, and he realized that he would have to pass near the cottage. He still recalled, with real affection, that first trip there, and the sense of hope that lodged in him then; there was some part of him that believed he might have saved his family, perhaps even Evelyn’s life, had he tried a little harder. In the intervening years, Lila had entered into therapy, where terrible ideas about him had been put into her head; she accused him, humiliated him at an extended family gathering, even threatened to take legal action against him. Greg no longer spoke to him, either, having sided with his sister; in any event he had joined the military, grown a large mustache, and adopted a gruff, threatening manner.
And so it was with mixed feelings that Richard pulled over at the site of the former substation. He was uncertain that he wanted to relive any of the times that led up to this state of affairs, and he definitely didn’t wish to recall the abortive second visit here with his children. Yet the pull of the cottage had proved too strong. He peered out the window at the hillside he was certain must be the right one, but which looked entirely alien to him.
High-tension wires now ran overhead, and a massive steel tower supported them, its enormous feet planted in the rocky soil of the hillside. The trailer/office was gone, with a cracked cement slab left behind, in its place; the only familiar landmark was the cluster of rusted pipes jutting from the weedy ground.
Richard stepped out of his car and climbed, effortfully, up the hill, with the hum of the power lines loud and strong enough to shake his body to the core. He was older now, and the hill more rugged, so by the time he reached the top he was quite winded, and his joints throbbed with pain.
The oak tree was gone now, a rotting stump the only evidence that it once existed. But the real differences lay with the cottage and the view. The far side of the hill had undergone a shocking transformation — half of it seemed to be missing, dug up and carted away, perhaps as fill, or for the reclamation of natural resources. The fairly gentle slope that had once led to the lake, and more recently to the marsh, was gone, and the crumbling ground fell away at a sharp angle, revealing the gray of sediment and the red of clay in the bare earth. Below, the marsh was gone too, and a meandering creek ran through the valley, looking poisoned and industrial, a twist of bare wire. Oddly, there was a similar hill on the opposite side of the creek, a cliff really, that he couldn’t remember being there before.
The cottage still stood in its usual place. But its foundation had been undermined by the excavation, and only half of it lay on solid ground. Someone, however, must have wanted to preserve the old place, because the foundation on the valley side had been extended far, far down to meet the sloping ground, in the form of a fifty-foot tall cinder block wall. Richard felt vertigo just looking at it, and it made him nervous to approach the cottage any more closely.
Still, he had come this far. The cottage itself looked quite sturdy now — in fact, its wooden walls and framing had been replaced by more cinder blocks, these painted a glossier, darker version of their natural gray. The windows had been eliminated, presumably to keep out the elements, and the once-sloping shingled roof was now little more than a slightly angled piece of corrugated metal.
Richard stepped carefully over some trash on the ground — an old doll, a box of books, some pieces of clothing, twisted in the weeds — and approached the cottage door. Beside it, a rusted hatchet was half-buried in the oak stump, the surface of which appeared stained by some dark liquid. Perhaps chickens were raised and slaughtered here, at some time in the past decade. The door, which he remembered as hardwood, with panes of glass, was now hollow-core steel, and stood halfway open, creaking quietly in the wind.
He stepped inside and was disappointed to find the cottage almost entirely empty. Indeed, the interior walls had been eliminated, the floorboards torn up and replaced with cement. The cottage was more like a garage now, or a warehouse. It smelled of earth and air.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Richard was able to make out only two objects in the room, a chair and a mattress. The mattress lay in one corner, pushed so that it touched the walls on two sides. It was thin and striped and appeared clean. And in the opposite corner stood a chair, a threadbare recliner, its upholstery rotting off and its stuffing half removed. An old gray blanket lay curled on it, almost in the form of a sleeping person. But no person sat beneath it.
The longer he stood here, though, the more he became convinced that there was a person there, in the chair — that the blanket was actually a tiny woman in a gray dress, lying with her head resting against the chair’s wing. When he looked directly at the chair, the shape appeared to be a blanket, and when he half looked away, it again became a woman. Similarly, the mattress now seemed to bear the weight of a small child, of indetermine gender, pressed into the corner — he could almost make out its shape in the gloom. As with the woman, the child disappeared when he gazed at it directly. So he stared straight ahead, into the far wall, so that he could see the woman and child at the same time.
He stood this way for some time. Outside, the wind picked up and it began to rain. The wind whistled through the cracks in the building and in through the open door behind him, and several times he thought he heard someone speak a name, Ellen or Evan, he couldn’t be sure. And he couldn’t tell if it was the old woman who had spoken, or the child.
In time, Richard realized that he would be late for his appointment if he didn’t resume his trip, and he backed slowly out of the cottage and made his deliberate and painful way down the hill back to his car.
And then comes his final visit to the cottage. It is years later; he is an old man, near death. He would like to see the place one last time. He has done well for himself; he has been able to spend his declining years doing what he pleases, attended to by people he has hired. His medical care is the best money can buy, and he has been diagnosed with the disease that will kill him. Business has satisfied him, delighted him even. Everyone he knows, he knows from the world of his work. There have been times when he wished he understood what happened to his family, times when, in dreams perhaps, or in moments of quiet and calm, he has endured some feeling, some dark sensation, informing him that he was to blame for everything, that he has done wrong. But these feelings have been few. Richard has put his family behind him, as they have probably done for him.
Still, his desire to see the cottage once more is an acknowledgement, to himself if not to the world, that they did mean something to him, and that there is a category of endeavor in which he has been a failure. He does not expect any kind of epiphany, any dramatic event; he only wants to see. He wants to see what has changed. So he tells his chief assistant to drive him there, to the old substation, and let him climb the hill to the cottage he used to visit.
The substation is entirely gone now — the trailer, the building, the fence, even the rusted pipes are gone. Instead the hillside is covered with houses, identical white houses, some kind of suburban development, though there is no city near this place, nowhere for the houses’ inhabitants to work. The streets are neat and even and climb the hill in gentle switchbacks; they have names like Woodland and Tiger Lily and Knotty Pine. Richard has brought his cane. His doctor told him not to depend on it for walking, but it doesn’t matter now — he won’t be walking for much longer. He begins to climb, and as he passes the neat white houses with their paved driveways and fenced yards, he realizes that they have not yet been occupied, that this development is new, built on spec, a work in progress. And the higher he climbs, the smaller these houses become, as if they are natural growths, responding to the thinness of the air. When he is halfway to the top, the houses have shrunk to the size of sheds, and then doghouses, and when he is nearly there, they have become doll houses, miniature houses at the end of miniature sidewalks which terminate in this beautifully paved, full-sized street.
He’s tired, of course, but he barely recognizes the sensation. He is filled with excitement and fear, of what, he doesn’t know. His heart is thudding and his lungs burn with the crisp air, and he knows that he will never feel this alive again.
The cottage is there, right where it’s supposed to be. And it looks like it did the first time, with two stories, and windows, and an oak tree. Except that the walls are gone — or rather they have decayed. It appears that they were made of fabric all along, some kind of canvas, or perhaps it was paper, a paper house, in the Japanese style. Scraps are hanging from the bare beams and flapping in a breeze. Richard walks in through the empty front doorframe and stands there, looking up through the roofless roof into the empty sky. The tattered walls are fluttering all around him.
He tries to remember, but he cannot. There’s nothing to remember. Everything is cleansed, scraped clean by the wind and the rain, rendered colorless and odorless. He is filled with a deep sense of satisfaction, a deep calm.
And the most extraordinary thing, now, is not the cottage itself but the land beyond it. Because the land has been replaced — the hillside filled in, and built up, and planted with grass and wildflowers. Indeed, the cottage is no longer at the top of the hill. The hill continues upward, more gently now; and it is lushly meadowed. A path runs away from the cottage up through the meadow, as far as the eye can see. There is a fence up ahead, and a stile to climb over, but the path continues beyond it, on into the meadow, without end.
Richard lingers in the cottage for a few minutes more. He has lost his cane, but he feels good enough to walk without it. He turns and looks down at the houses he has passed, the empty houses, foreshortened now with distance so that all of them appear about the same size, the doll houses and doghouses and sheds and full-sized houses, as though they are cardboard cutouts lined up at the back of a stage, a school stage where his children are putting on a play. And down below that, very small now, very much like a toy, his big black car, and the assistant waiting for him behind the wheel, his newspaper spread out on the dash.
Richard turns his back on all that, and faces the meadow, and steps out of the cottage through the back wall, the tattered wall that caresses him and gently ushers him into the grass beyond. He has rarely been more excited about anything than he is right now, about stepping onto that path, and when he does, and begins to climb toward the stile, he is treated with the most deeply satisfying feeling, as though the path were made just for him, mowed and gravelled for him by a crew of workers, all of them careful not to walk its length as they worked, so as to save that experience for him, so that he could be the first. There is new strength in his step — it is as though he is walking downhill, even though he is not. The air is fresh and scented by the grass, and the fence and the stile are ahead, and beyond that is more, something more, he doesn’t know what it is, but it is his alone and soon he will be there.