The Language of Light
Emma Crofton was sixty-nine when I first met her, in the autumn of the year Wesley died. I’d just packed up our belongings and moved to Maryland with my two sons: Ned, who would tell you he was not just eight but rather eight and a quarter, and Charlie, who’d just turned six. We’d come to live in a simple stone house my great-grandfather had built on a hundred acres of horse country ninety years before. The farm belonged to my father by then and though he hadn’t visited it in years it was full of warm memories for him: swimming in the muddy-bottomed pond and following deer tracks through the woods, capturing turtles and frogs and snakes my great-grandmother allowed him to keep in large pickle jars when he spent summers there. For me, though, the farm was an empty place, full of other people’s histories, surrounded by other people’s friends living other people’s lives, a thousand miles away from the life I knew. A life that had seemed to close in around me in the wake of Wesley’s death.
That afternoon I met her, the sky was overcast, dreary, but the boys were outside anyway, down by the pond skipping rocks, Boomer, our golden retriever, barking at their heels. I was inside, sitting at Wesley’s old desk, sorting through a messy pile of my photographs. Just as I glanced up to check on the boys, the sun peeked through the clouds, shooting rays out, fanlike, through the gap, and that’s when I saw her: a stranger riding across my bridge on horseback, wearing a hat.
Emma wore hats generally, not just at Saint James’s Church, where all the ladies still wore hats in the old-fashioned way––and, quite frankly, not that kind of hat. You’d never catch Emma Crofton in a timid little pillbox or a floppy sunbonnet. She sported bold hats that marked her approach from some distance: men’s felt bowlers in bright colors with feathers tucked into the ribbons; wide, strong-brimmed hats that blocked your view from behind; or, when she was perched on her tractor cutting her fields, the old brown suede hat that, Willa later told me, had belonged to Emma’s husband before he died. When Emma was riding, though, she wore a simple black riding cap with a hunting coat and black britches, as she did that day. Her back was straight, her head motionless, as she bobbed smoothly up and down on the chestnut horse. She made her way up the gravel drive, looking as if she belonged a hundred years back in time, on an English country estate. Only the spatters of mud on her polished leather boots seemed to belong in my life.
I watched her through the window with a great deal of curiosity and a small measure of hope, and when she’d ridden nearly to my front porch I came outside to greet her. She dismounted, moving as gracefully as a young girl though her face was weathered and deeply lined. She brought the reins over the horse’s head and tied them to the lowest branch of the maple next to the drive. The horse snorted lightly and stepped forward a few paces, leaving horseshoe shapes of compressed grass where his hooves had been. Emma clicked her tongue twice and tapped him with her crop, coaxing him back up onto the drive. The animal smell of him mingled with the smell of decaying leaves.
"I’m Nelly Grace," I said, offering my hand, realizing only then that I still held one of my photos.
Emma nodded twice, sharply, and in a voice not quite perfectly American—English, I thought, or something English-like—she said, "Yes, of course you are."