Clapboard and brick homes from the 1700s and 1800s line the streets in my seaport town.
Narrow roads radiate from the waterfront and climb uphill like the monture of a folding fan. Atop its arc is a busy main road where magnificent colonial captains’ houses soldier on.
Their windows now hold modern fixtures. Simulated brilliant candles hold blandly steady, never flickering in wind that still sweeps into minute seams in horsehair plaster walls.
Some of their roofs are topped with a platform known as a widow’s walk, or widow’s watch. Were they at ground level, where neighbors wander companionably to shops and farmer’s markets, a dog park or a church, they would be mere porches.
Some have ornate painted balustrades in ghostly white. Elevated above these houses, the small enclosures occupy their own solitary plane, like the crow’s nest outlook on an old sailing ship’s mast. I imagine lachrymose long-departed wives standing, casting thousand-yard stares down towards the port from which spouses might never have returned.
Widows would have floated above their neighbors, having ascended those extra steps closer to heaven into a small space seemingly open to the world’s bustle, yet set apart and steeped in solitude.
I study these houses every day on my own earth-bound path, always chosen by a beagle who hilariously fancies himself an alpha. He and his brother, sweet Brady, used to run ahead of my husband on a long hill up and away from the centuries-old home we all shared then. They never just walked; they ran, the pups’ soft ears bobbing. I never picture them returning home; in my mind’s eye they are always starting out together.
Now only Rufus remains with me. He has enough of a white muzzle that other dog lovers instantly recognize him as a vintage model. Although we rarely run, Rufus invariably pulls me at a steady, quick clip downhill to the waterfront. He is always searching his map of the world, nose burrowed into particles of the past until we reach the port. There he strains his left flank against the same old granite post, thicker than a tombstone, then goes to the low waterfront fence, and raises his deep brown eyes to scan the sea and sky.
“Why does he always look so sad?” I would ask Jim.
“Because he’s a beagle.”
Winter is just short of its official arrival, but by October the harbor had emptied of all but the most stalwart working vessels. Summer pleasure craft were hoisted on enormous hanging belts and levered from the icy Atlantic.
When we turn back Rufus and I look up, where masts and rigging tower above us, a graveyard of ships out of water shrouded in heavy white plastic that gleams in harsh sunlight no longer softened by a filigree of leaves.
Another widow’s walk.