Mrs. Sherston recites poetry like a child, stumbling over words and lilting in an ill-paced rhythm, but her cheeks are flushed, her eyes are bright; she looks almost like she has a fever. She reveres the poetry. She means every word of it.
“You know any Hopkins?” she asks him as they’re leaving through her flaking garden gate. He holds it open for her, then forces the rusty thing to close. The bottom of it gets caught on soft earth turned up by groundhogs, and he has to manipulate the rusty hook into the lock before the gate itself will stay closed.
“Hopkins,” Rodney repeats. His fingers are red and smarting from forcing the lock shut. There’s a smile on his lips. “I’ve read him, of course. I haven’t memorized any just yet, I’m afraid.”
“He’s rather up your alley, though,” said Mrs. Sherston, “isn’t he?”
She looks at him sideways. That crooked smile, those dancing eyes. She wears a man’s corduroy coat and trousers — perhaps her husband’s clothing — with her hands stuffed in the pockets for protection against the spring chill. They walk to the woods together, dew transferring from the wet grass to their trouser cuffs.
Joan would never dress like that, Rodney thinks, never dress so — well, she’d call it shoddy. He glances at Mrs. Sherston’s dull brown hair, so unruly, pulled up behind her head. Wisps of it curl against the back of her neck or brush her collar, escaping the tie.
“Do you know any Hopkins?” he asks. He knows she must; otherwise, why bring it up? And the way she smiles at him, that means yes, of course I do.
She starts reciting. He’s heard Joan recite Shakespeare and Blake, Shelley and Keats, but he’s never heard her recite anything personal. He’s never heard anybody recite something personal — something that means something to them, something they feel in their soul.
He casts furtive glances Mrs. Sherston’s way.
That crooked smile, big and broad and powerful, teeth flashing. It transforms her face, makes her not younger exactly, but more immediate, more real. It brings out her laugh lines.
She breaks off as they enter the woods. Rodney pushes back the brambles for her, feels a thorn catch in the pad of his thumb. She smiles at him.
“You’re not listening to me at all, are you?” she says, not unkindly.
“I am. Of course, I am.”
“You’re not listening to my words,” she says, but she’s still smiling, and he can’t help but smile back. He gestures northward, down the old dirt path, silently asking her to lead the way. He resists the urge to put his hand on her arm as she walks past.
“You’ll have to recite it again,” he says.
It’s not just Mrs. Sherston’s rhythm that’s off, Rodney thinks as they stroll beneath the trees. It’s the poem itself. All Hopkins poems are like that, he supposes — it’s not the sort of thing Joan would like to read or memorize. Not at all. She adores iambic pentameter and the painstaking structure of classic poetry.
And her face is utterly blank when she recites. She moulds herself into a perfect little porcelain doll for recitals — so perfect that it’s always a shock when she opens her mouth and starts to speak.
Rodney clasps his hands behind his back as they walk; Leslie keeps hers shoved into her pockets, but only while she’s reciting. They fall in step with each other, like soldiers on the march, until they reach the rocky uphill slope of Asheldown.
He takes the first step — that is to say, he takes the lead. He anchors himself with one foot on a high, flat slab above him and the other foot on the dirt path below. He reaches out for her, palm up, with the hand bruised by the gate and bitten by the thorns.
She takes it. He feels calluses on her fingers, dry and rough.
He pulls her up with him.
“Say it again?” he asks.
She looks a question at him.
“I don’t quite understand it,” he explains.
“Not just yet.”
She stares at him a moment longer, her right eyebrow lifting. There’s something serious about her smile.
“At the top, perhaps,” she says, and her hand slips out of his. “We’ll need to save our breath for the climb, now, won’t we?”
He leaves his hand outstretched a moment longer, palm open. As she moves away, he sees a streak of blood on her index finger. His blood, from his stuck thumb.
“At the top,” he agrees.
It’s dusk, and a wise man would be close to home by now, but Rodney and Mrs. Sherston are still at the top of Asheldown. The forest stretches out for miles beneath them, all dark and barren, the buds of spring just starting to come in. Birds whistle in the trees, hop from branch to branch.
“Feels like the first time I’ve seen them all year,” Rodney says. He watches sparrows jump over each other, each fighting for the best buds.
“It is the first time,” says Mrs. Sherston. “Since winter, at least.”
He sits on a ledge overlooking the hill they climbed to get here; his legs dangle over the edge, his hands pressed into the stone and grit behind him. She sits on a fallen oak log four feet away from him, her boots streaked with dirt and her eyes turned up to the faint little glimmer of stars coming out overhead. There are mushrooms poking out of the soft wood around her — soft, fleshy brown, some of them, and others the color of honey.
Like a sunset, Rodney thinks. Only he’s missed the sunset today; it went down behind his back while they were walking.
“Leslie?” he says, and her name sounds foreign in his voice, clumsy on his tongue.
“Rodney,” she says. Teasing him.
“Recite it again, won’t you?”
His fingers flex on the ground, closing over an invisible hand. He doesn’t dare glance over his shoulder at her.
“Or don’t recite it,” he says quickly, the words forcing their way out. “Not the whole thing, you don’t have to. Just the important part.”
He doesn’t specify what the important part is. His heart is thudding in his chest. He hopes he doesn’t need to specify; he hopes she doesn’t ask.
She doesn’t. Her voice is soft.
“Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl needs no rest,” she says. “Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest — but his own nest, wild nest, no prison.”
“That’s it,” says Rodney. He doesn’t hear himself speak. “That’s it. Thank you, Leslie.”
She says nothing. He leans back on his hands and inhales the scent of fresh, young trees; the smell of spring on the cold air, dew on his trouser cuffs; soft, fertile earth beneath him and the scent of ferns and wildflowers coming in.
He tips his head back. If he were closer to her — if they dared sit close, like friends do — if he’d sat at her feet like he wished to, he’d feel the corduroy of her trousers against his hair.
They don’t speak to each other. They don’t recite poetry now. They don’t say it.
They watch darkness settle in.
They watch the stars come out.