Originally published on June 1, 1995.
Astronomers calculate distances in trillions of miles and light-years. But when I am here at the cabin, the universe contracts to a more manageable scale — only what I can see immediately around me, or can reach in a few minutes on foot.
Nearly everything I need is contained within that narrowed compass: the cabin itself, with bed and stove and writing table; the piece of sky above my clearing; the pine trees, grown tall now, that a girl and I planted in the month before we wed, and, down the path through the woods, the pond whose glassy surface reflects the world.
Any reasonable notion of a universe ought also to hold the possibility, at least, of immortality. And mine does. Time stops, and most of those I’ve cared for are present, unchanging, in the pictures that nearly fill the cabin walls.
My parents are there, holding a great fish and smiling together in a year before the sickness and the sadness came. The two beagles are there, still pups. Yesterday I visited the stones, grown over now with moss and lichens, that mark their place on the wooded hillside above the pond. But in the picture they have just come back from a night of prowling, sleepy-eyed and wanting breakfast.
Friends who’ve spent spring or autumn days here; drawings my daughters made when they were small; a note, handwritten in uncertain English, from three men who sat beside my stove, remembering a summer journey we made together on a great river half a world away.
There’s a reassuring sense of everything kept safe, nothing ever lost.
The only thing I’d wish for is the actual sound of the voices. But then, if I listen hard enough, sometimes I can make the voices come.
Today, though, no act of imagining is required. The girl is with me here — the one I planted the trees with. So this small universe is full and perfectly in order.
The day was almost inexpressibly fine from its very start — just chill enough to make an early fire welcome, the stillness absolute except for bird song, the sky transparent and deep. Wood smoke from the chimney hung blue against the dark of woods. Two wrens were hurrying to and from their nest under the porch eave.
In the morning I worked, though that seems a curious word for it, since work is something that’s supposed to be done in confinement, while wishing you were someplace else.
And in the afternoon we took a walk — just long enough to feel a pleasant tiredness — through the trees, past the pond where the bird dog, Rufus, lingered for a swim, and up into a meadow bright with wildflowers. Some of the blossoms, the yellow ones, were of such intensity that when we held our hands close their color reflected on the skin.
These small activities filled the day.
“I already feel like we’ve been a long time away, “ she said.
“We could live here.”
I could hear the reservation in her voice.
“Hypothetically, I mean. If the world came apart, we could do it.”
“Yes, I suppose we could, “ she said. “We could be happy anywhere.”
With the memories all fixed in place, with time stopped and a partner near, even the smallest universe is grand enough.