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 St. 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."
She'd come to welcome me to the neighborhood, a "country neighborhood" that stretched across five square miles of land. Her place was one hill over to the south and slightly east, she said, and I wondered where that was in terms of streets (which only later did I come to call roads) but for fear of appearing ignorant did not ask.
I pointed out Ned and Charlie, their skinny bodies no taller than the remains of the pussy willows at the pond's edge, only their nearly black hair-my straight, thick hair-setting them apart, and she said she had a son, too, though he was grown now. He lived in a house on the farm they worked together, she said. That was done a lot there: siblings of families that had been in the area for generations lived on farms that bordered each other, family compounds in which the eldest child moved into the parents' house when the parents died, one of their children in turn getting their house, the cousins growing up together, leaving for whatever Ivy League college their family had attended forever (Princeton, generally), but always coming back. "It's rather nice," Emma said, "grandparents hunting with their grandchildren." Foxhunting, she explained; she was master of the hounds then, the first woman ever to be master, though she didn't tell me that.
"Nearly everyone here rides," she said. "We put them on horses even before they're your Charlie's age."
She said she hoped I'd consider leaving my farm open to riders; the hunt club had taken care of clearing the paths through the woods for years, and would be happy to continue to do so if I'd let them ride through. "Why don't you join us at the races Saturday, and I'll introduce you around?" she said. She had a spot at the finish line, and we'd have a tailgate party with my neighbors, Willa Jenkins, who lived up the road on the left, and Kirby and Joan, who had that pretty yellow house on the right.
"You'll enjoy Kirby," Emma said, "though you may not know it at first. He's an architect, but he designs sailboats, writes music, and plays the cello just as well as he builds buildings. He sings light opera in a local theater troupe, Gilbert and Sullivan and that type of thing, and he makes the most marvelous scones, though he's not even English." She leaned toward me and lowered her voice. "But he's rather odd-looking, to be honest. I'm afraid his features don't quite go together somehow."
"Not quite symmetrical, I suppose. But don't let his looks scare you off. Or his manner either. He tends to be a bit flamboyant, but it's all for show and he's quite a fine sort underneath.
"Now, Joan?.?.?.?well, she is what she is. A lot of people don't like her-they say she's opinionated and bossy. And she is. But I like her anyway. She was kind to me when I first came here with Davis, when?.?.?.?when she might not have been.
"You'll love Willa," she continued as I shot a quick glance at Ned and Charlie, still skipping rocks.
"Everyone does," she said. "Particularly the married men, though even their wives can't seem to help liking her."
I said I'd love to go.
Emma, glancing toward the photograph in my hand, suggested I might bring my camera. I pulled the photo closer to me-almost a reflex-then made myself look at it with forced nonchalance. It was an old photo: a bell-bottomed, sign-carrying woman shouting angrily as she marched in a teacher's picket line. I'd thought when I'd taken the photo that I would submit it to my school newspaper, but on developing it, I'd seen I should have looked for a better angle or moved in closer- something about the shot wasn't quite right.
"That is your photograph?" Emma said. "I thought at first it was one of your father's, but it's yours, isn't it?"
Perhaps it should have struck me then that she knew my father's work, but so many people did that it never surprised me. Or perhaps I was simply too wrapped up in wishing I'd moved in closer for that shot, or in realizing how much that woman's angry face looked like Wesley's that last time we'd argued, I do remember thinking that. In any case I only nodded reluctantly and said yes, the photo was mine.
Emma smiled warmly, showing slightly gray teeth. "Yes, do bring your camera," she said.
She pulled a small Mason jar from her jacket pocket then, one with a plain, white sticker on the top that read emma's peach in barely legible blue ink. "I don't know if it's good," she said. "I've never made it before."
"I'm sure it will be wonderful, Mrs. Crofton," I said.
Emma hiked her boot up into the stirrup and swung her free leg easily over her horse. "Please, Nelly, won't you call me Emma?" she said.
"Emma, then," I said, and I stood on my front porch, waving a little half-wave and watching her ride off.
I had to peel Charlie off my legs when the baby-sitter arrived the morning of the races. Ned, older and braver, looked droopy and didn't say a word. They weren't clingy children, but ever since their father died they didn't like me to go anywhere.
I would rather have stayed home myself, to be honest. The thing about losing someone is that the fear becomes real, or at least it did for me; I knew that everyone could disappear from my life in the single moment it took for any one of a million things I couldn't even imagine to occur. For months after Wesley died, after his car skidded off that icy road, I would pull my pillow and blanket into the boys' bedroom at night and lie on the floor, listening to the deep, easy rhythms of their breaths.
Some nights I still did.
I went to the races that day, though, walking up the hill to Kirby and Joan's farm, where we settled on driving together in Joan's station wagon; we had only one parking pass and we couldn't all fit into Emma's beat-up old truck without riding in the truck bed, an opportunity Kirby declined for us on the excuse of his sport coat and his white shirt and tie.
"These will be point-to-point races," Kirby told me, as if I might have a clue what that meant. "Hurdles and timber races and steeplechase." Terms he was clearly sure I understood. I said, "Right, sure," as if I did understand, feeling uneasy under the focus of his dark eyes and bushy black eyebrows set in a crooked, Dudley Do- Right-chinned face. He was ugly, as Emma had suggested, but in a fascinating sort of way. Part of me wanted to zoom in for a close-up; part of me wanted to cap the lens and back away.
Not that I'd brought my camera-I hadn't. A fact Emma noted as she settled a broad-brimmed red felt hat on her head, the reflected sunlight casting a warm glow on her face.
"You forgot your camera, Nelly," she said.
"I- Yes," I said. "I forgot."
And when she offered to swing by and get it on the way out, I found myself admitting it was still packed. "I'm afraid I haven't even uncovered the box quite yet," I said.
Emma looked at me oddly, as if I were speaking an unknown language but she somehow understood my meaning from the tone of my voice, the expression on my face. Well, next time, she said after a moment, and I said yes, next time.
She handed us each a ticket then, a small square pink thing with a horse logo and the words restricted enclosure printed on it, with a green string attached. Following Willa's lead, I busied myself tying my ticket to a button of my blouse, and we loaded the picnic basket into the way-back of Joan's station wagon and drove to a large stone home perched upon a high hill, with views all around and a mile-long lawn stretching down to the road. There were cars already parked in their spots on the lawn, and we, too, drove right across the grass, to our space.
The place was festive, people mingling, drinking champagne from crystal flutes, and eating stuffed mushrooms and pasta salads and caviar. We spread our own picnic on a red-checked tablecloth on the tailgate, and Emma poured champagne and we began to discuss the races: who was riding which horse in which race and who'd been running well lately and who'd won these same races last year. Or rather, the others talked and I listened. I heard the name Dac come up again and again, and finally I caught on that he was Emma's son. I looked in the program and there he was, Davis A. Crofton V, named as the trainer for a number of horses running that day. Even, on one page, two in the same race.
We visited that way for a while, together with a stream of visitors who came and went, subjects paying homage to Emma. And as the race starting time (post time, Willa said) drew near, Kirby proposed a small betting pool.
"Winner takes all," Emma insisted.
"You want your horse, or are you feeling overinvested in this one?" Kirby lifted one eyebrow and we all laughed, and I looked down at my program to see a horse named Foolish Heart, owned by Emma and trained by Dac, running in the first race.
"You might as well hand me the money," Emma said.
Joan chose a horse named Regal's Q, whatever that meant, and Kirby took Double Barrel, saying that with a name like that, he'd better come out fast. Willa put her money on Tom's War, saying it fit her violent mood these days, and everyone laughed, including Willa, though I didn't understand why, not yet knowing the difficulties of her divorce.
I put my dollar on Newsbeat, thinking of my father, from whom I'd received a quickly jotted postcard that morning, a photo from the Archbishop's Palace in Lima with apologies for not having made it back to help us move. The boys had been so looking forward to his visit, too, to having Grandpa Pat show them his farm. And I wondered then how they were doing with the sitter. I hoped she liked playing Monopoly, or Clue, or Crazy Eights.
Behind us, two green-and-white striped tents that had been filled only with white folding chairs when we arrived began to fill with men in coats and ties and women in skirts and hats-one stooped old woman was dressed all in horses, on her skirt and sweater and even on her hat-while below us, along the post-and-rail fence marking the edge of the course, people in all manner of attire collected: men in blue jeans with babies in backpacks strapped on their broad shoulders, teenage girls with red lipstick and bright dresses, beamy women with big hair and pastel pants. Some brought along lawn chairs or picnic blankets, and some just stood or sat on the ground along the fence. Some brought binoculars. Some brought cameras. Some brought children, who ran around like trapped ants until their mothers or their fathers made them stop. It was wonderfully chaotic, spirited, amusing in a way that our enclosure, with its champagne-drinking, pink-ticketed patrons, was somehow not.
Excerpted from The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton. Copyright © 2011 by Meg Waite Clayton. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.