He looked old enough to have trodden the mountains when they were but hills. His age spots told of tales often repeated and others long forgotten. Each line etched deep in his wizened countenance told of pains and trials that only the toughest survive.
And sometimes wish they hadn’t.
And Sophia loved him with the deep and abiding love reserved for those who wore their medals and battle ribbons in the slow gait of advanced age and multiple injuries from a hard life of barely making ends meet.
“Henry,” she said as she pressed a knee to the paddle switch under the counter. Coming from behind the counter of Sophie’s Cove, she enveloped him in a warm embrace that he returned with more than his usual intensity. She could almost swear she caught a whiff of newly sawn lumber from his years working in the local sawmills mixed with the pine scent of the forest where he’d hunted and fished to put some protein on the table.
And not always in season.
Kissing Sophia on the cheek he broke their embrace and, in a voice so dry it made her very heart crack, he made his usual attempt at humor. “Is that undeserving husband of yours around, sweety? I think it’s only fair that he knows you’ve finally seen the light and are running away with me.”
She laughed. “Oh, Henry, I haven’t been able to break it to him. I am not as strong as you. I’ll trust you to do it for us, dear heart.”
His smile reached back years to his time as a boy who still had hopes of a life those around him told him was only pie in the sky. Back when he hadn’t yet started to believe them. “Are you still in the Darjeeling phase, honey?” he asked.
“Oh, yes.” Sophia replied. “But I must admit that my eyes have begun to wander. Earl Grey, that handsome devil, is beginning to tempt me .”
“I’m jealous,” said the old man. “In the meantime, could I buy a pot or two of your finest Darjeeling?”
“No,” Sophia replied. “But you are welcome to drink your fill, fine sir.”
“Is he upstairs?”
“He’ll be down in a moment. He said he wanted to prepare lunch himself because his fajitas are better than mine. I left the cleaning up to him to teach him a lesson. He’s right, of course but, if you tell him I said that, I’ll have to kill you in your sleep.”
“One night with you, darling, and I’d willingly let you smother me with a pillow. I’d die a happy man.”
Chris appeared from the aisle labeled Fine Silver and he broke into a broad smile. “Henry, will you never let me get a good night’s rest? Even since we’ve met, I have to keep an eye on my wife night and day lest she sneak out to be with you.”
“You are wise, Chris. If you haven’t told her that you love her 100 times today, you don’t deserve her.”
“Darn. 99. But it’s not quite noon.”
“Too late. To make amends Cretin, you make the tea. I’ll be waiting in the Book Nook. Make sure you make it strong enough for a real man. None of that wimpy stuff you young’uns drink these days.”
Henry took a sip of the strong brew that Chris had made for the two of them and uttered an audible sigh. “Perfect,” he said. “Makes me happy to have been sober for these past 21 years.” Placing his large mug down on the arm of the chair, because men like Henry don’t use cups or, worst of all, saucers, he said, “I’ve been beating around the bush too long, Chris. I’m going to get right to it this time.”
“Hit me, Henry. What’s up?”
“He was mean. He really messed me up.”
Chris paused, his own mug part way up to his mouth. Then he took a drink of tea that left the mug half empty. Placing the mug on the arm of his chair to mirror Henry, he said, “Your father.”
“They were hard men back then, Henry.”
“But your father worked through it, Chris. He was not as bad to you as his father was to him. My father and your grandfather deserved one another but your father got out. He and I were friends. I should have gone with him.”
“I wish you had, Henry. He spoke of you often. He missed you but he couldn’t come back. Too many horrors haunted his memory of this beautiful place. He did his best to excise them so he wouldn’t pass them down to us kids but it took time. It must have worked too. I came back. My brother and sister have no problem visiting.”
“I’m 87, Chris. I missed my chance. Inside and out, I still carry with me the scars he put on me. Even when I finally stood up to him, he smiled knowing that I’d carry his mark to my grave.”
“What’s going on, Henry? Is this supposed to be a time of healing for you? If so, I’m no therapist.”
“Not a licensed one, perhaps, but a friend. And, sometimes, that is the only therapist one needs.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Trust me. I know.”
Chris picked up the old, 1950’s clay teapot. Worth nothing if offered for sale, it was priceless to Chris for the memory of how his mother treasured everything her mother had left her.
He hefted the pot. It was still half full. “I think I’d better see if Sophia will make us another pot. It will not be quite as strong but that’s okay.”
Sophia had not been able to pin down her feeling of unease but she was sure it had started with the hug she’d shared with Henry. Determined to find some excuse to invite herself into the men’s conversation, she had called and asked Alexandra to come in early. Now, wracking her brain for a plausible excuse to invade Chris’s conversation with his friend, she was relieved when Chris texted.
Hunk: More Darjeeling, love, if not too much trouble. STAT!
A broad smile split Sophia’s face. Her husband had no problem admitting her skills dealing with the reality of what it takes to be human were so much better than his.
Within minutes Sophia was pouring the men’s mugs full of her best Darjeeling. She had made it extra strong and was pleased at Henry’s smile and deep contented sigh at his first sip. Going through the motions, she made as if to leave so that Chris had to ask her to join them. The softening of the older man’s craggy face told her she was more than welcome and she sat on the edge of the chair nearest Henry. Taking a sip of the tea she nearly winced at its strength, then asked, “So, what are we going to talk about?”
Henry smiled slyly. “Well, to start with, let me express my satisfaction with your husband’s willingness to call in reinforcements. His attempt at subterfuge was pretty lame.
“We were discussing the cruelty of some father’s to their own children. Specifically, in this case, their sons. I fear I come here to unburden myself of my many regrets. Chiefly, my waiting too long to shed myself of the tradition of toughness that has my children convinced I never loved them. Now, they are long past caring and, when I die, they will only know of it if they happen to read my obituary. And you know what? I doubt they will get past the headline announcing my death before they move on to the sports page.”
Sophia resisted the urge to force some trite expression of disagreement on the old man. She had seen many of his generation, and more than a few of the newer generations, where Henry’s prediction would turn out to be all too accurate. Instead she waited.
Chris knew enough of his wife’s deep compassion and empathy to sit silently, sipping his tea. Henry sat staring at the floor, lost in his pain. When he looked up, he was at first confused at the way Sophia sat quietly, probing his eyes with her own. Then his look turned to panic for a moment. Finally, his breathing became erratic as he fought with the last of his reserves against what had been too long in coming.
All logic, all reason, all chance of discussion collapsed against the overwhelming power of a lifetime of pain. The tears began streaming down Henry’s face, his breathing became even more labored as the shame at his weakness also crumbled away leaving only his heart a raw and open wound.
Sophia did her part to help for she, too, and without needing or caring to know the cause, felt the old man’s regrets and pains within her as her own tears flowed. Henry’s hands began to shake and Chris snatched the old man’s tea mug before he could spill any on himself. Putting the mug on the table between them, he began to wonder how long it would take for nearly nine decades of anguish to be drained from a human soul.
When he was finally able to speak, Henry said, “He enjoyed it. I saw what he was doing to my brother and I did nothing to stop it.”
As Sophia dried her tears, Chris asked, “How old were you when that happened?”
“All ages. I never stood up to him until we were all grown. By then it didn’t matter. He smiled knowing the damage he’d caused and that we would carry the scars on our hearts forever.”
“He, no doubt, had been well taught this evil in his own childhood,” Chris said. “So, how could you have stopped him?”
“I couldn’t. But my brother should have seen me try. Maybe then he would have known someone loved him enough to take a beating for him. At least our sister never went through it. She waited on him hand and foot. He loved that.”
“Where was your mother in all this?” Sophia asked.
Henry leaned back in the chair and his hands tightened into fists. “He even manipulated me into talking her into staying. Can you believe that? He wasn’t bright. He’d quit school at 15 to go work in the woods with his uncle. Mom was smarter, I was smarter. But he was crafty, manipulative. He had withheld his approval for so long, he’d made me feel so small that, when given the chance, I would use the connection I had with my mother to get her to stay. Of course, that was the worst thing I could have done. But what does a 12-year-old know of such things when he craves a father’s approval?”
“So,” Chris said, “do you need him to know he lost? Or is it enough for you to know?”
Henry’s long gray eyebrows knitted together in confusion.
“Because,” continued Chris, “if you need him to know, he will have truly won because you can’t reach him now. But, if it is enough that you know he lost, you have a chance.”
Henry’s face cleared in comprehension. “I’m not sure I can do that. I’ve hated him for a long, long time.”
“Decide,” Sophia said. “We’ll wait.”
Henry looked at her for a moment before bursting into laughter. “You two are really something,” he said. “I guess it’s worth a shot.” His face suddenly decades brighter, Henry rose. “You know, there’s no tonic better than a half hour at Sophie’s Cove. But, right now, I need to run across the parking lot to see if David has finished a little project I’ve had him working on for me.”
Not at all surprised at the old man’s sudden energy and his need to get on with things, Chris and Sophia also rose.
“You’re always welcome, Henry,” Sophia said as she hugged him.
“Absolutely,” agreed Chris as he held out his hand.
One month later.
Chris stood, mouth agape, staring at the most beautiful chair he’d ever seen. “That was what he called a little project?”
“He swore me to secrecy, Chris,” David Johnson said.
“Even I didn’t know,” Alexandra Johnson said. “I guess he figured I’d have a hard time not telling you, Sophia. He was probably right too.”
“Remember the little sterling silver rocking chair, Chris?” David asked.
Unsure of his voice. Chris only nodded a yes.
“He says that, when he complained that you sold an antique rocking chair he’d had his eye on that you gave him that little miniature,” David continued. “I was terrified I didn’t have the skills needed to split and flatten it into two complementary halves so I sent it to an old friend in Alabama. It had to be inlaid just so into the back of the chair on each side of the dedication. Carving out the setting so that it fit tightly enough that it didn’t need any glue took me a week. I widened it out slightly as I carved in deeper. That way the silver spread out as I tapped it in. Those pieces are part of the wood forever now. He insisted that he pay extra for that. I think I’ll give the money to his kids.”
“None of them have spoken to him in years, David,” Sophia said.
“Yeah, I’ll bet they’ll take the money though,” scoffed Alex.
“That inscription,” croaked Chris.
When Chris was unable to say more, David read the inscription aloud for him. “To Chris and Sophia, the very definition of friendship. Love will rest its head gently upon the heart of anyone blessed to sit here in your presence.”
The sob that erupted from Sophia brought Alex to her side.
David stood where he was but looked steadily at Chris as his eyes grew moist. “I cannot think of two people more deserving. He commissioned it three months ago when he knew he had so little time left. I don’t know how he endured the pain so well that no one guessed. Keeping it a secret has been agony for me but it was worth it just to see your faces.” David stood behind the chair and placed both hands on its back. “Here, Chris, you do the honors.”
Chris only managed to shake his head no. David didn’t move and as the silence enveloped the room with a velvet heaviness, Chris cleared his throat and moved from behind the counter, and, walking to the chair, slowly lowered himself into the repentance of the man that none of those he loved most would ever know.