The break between semesters opens up free time for walks and reading and the contemplation that can attend both. I find myself turning to Peter Handke’s novel Die Obstdiebin, published in 2017 but only now drawing my sustained attention, turning to it daily as I turned to cherished books earlier in my life (Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Kierkegaard, the Bible, Thomas Mann, Emerson, Steinbeck, Flaubert, Goethe, Rilke, Kafka, Tolstoy . . .), finding both wisdom and delight to feed my soul.
Today the passage catching my interest finds the narrator thinking about his neighbors across the lane, a family of mostly unpleasant people. Only the father/husband remains in the house, and on this day the car parked in the lane belongs to a nurse visiting the sick man. The narrator reports that they had grown closer before the man fell sick and then, in a beautifully rambling sentence like so many in Handke’s late work, says that
His wife had died, a long-since wizened person who, alone in the family — there were still children, none of whom had radiated anything childlike from early on — now and then let herself be seen aside from leaving the house, starting the car, driving away, returning, unlocking the door, closing window blinds — who allowed herself to be seen with a coffee or glass at the train station bar, walking in a side street, or during the summer alone in the surrounding woods without the man and the children when blackberries ripen as they are now, she, with a couple of skillful steps between the thorns picking the berries into a tin half-hidden in her clothing, furtively, as if such berry picking were improper for her, the wife of that certain man and the mother of his so quickly grown children, and once or twice furtively looking over at me, who, at a distance, still deeper in the brambles, was also doing what was as improper for me as as it was for her, with something like complicity between thieves, momentary joy, in the corners of her eyes.
I love this glimpse into my own self, remembering an encounter with my neighbor just a couple of years ago. A retired widow with wanderlust that has taken her to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, to Chile, and to Costa Rica, a lover of native plants. Walking up my driveway one day, I saw that she had just picked an armload of our Palmer’s penstemons, dried seedpods bearing thousands of little black seeds that would, in the late spring, blossom pink and give off an extravagant sweet scent. She greeted me with surprise and I said hello. The awkward moment reminded me of the light blue iris flourishing seductively at the edge of another neighbor’s property, flowers I had cut furtively just weeks before.
Flower thieves thick as thieves at the top of our driveway.
I helped my neighbor pick some more penstemons and there was momentary joy at the corners of her mouth. And mine.