Excerpts

Prologue

THAT NOVEMBER, the first snow had come to northern New York on Thanksgiving Day. It fell softly both within and beyond congested cities, stretching its domain toward less populated terrain, including a distinctive two-hundred-acre campus of manicured nineteenth-century grounds, skillfully planted with evergreen shrubs and towering trees. The November snowflakes hugged the rough-faced sandstone on the clustered campus buildings, enhancing their Romanesque windows and doors, and sculpting frozen white, the curve of connecting archways. Now that the snow was still, nature’s iced glaze clung to two central stone towers that dominated the campus. Their pointed roofs of black slate stood poised amid the hush of pastoral surroundings as if contemplating whether or when to ram the threshold of heaven with fervent appeals of hope.

In one of the tall towers, empty, unused, and unlit, stood a lone custodian gazing at the placid frozen sight far below. It was about twenty-four hours since the first flake had fallen, and he had rolled open one of the pointed tower windows, the hinges arthritically protesting as he slowly twisted the handle. He had come to smoke a cigarette, to prolong the peace of night before resuming his hospital rounds. He inhaled slowly, tranquilly, and the tiny spark of light in the surrounding dark glowed red beside his face, and then glimmered less brightly as he exhaled. Smoke mingled with the frozen vapor of his breath in the bone-chilling dark…

Chapter 1

THREE STATES SOUTH, in Central Virginia’s Peach County, snow was on the way, a white presence hoped for but as yet unseen. Rain, instead, drummed the earth,

bringing down the last hanging leaves from the silver maples and the pin oaks, filling the evergreen cedars with crystalline weight, dislodging cone-laden branches from the loblolly pines. Commiserating with one another, a gaggle of crows rasped from heights in the tall Virginia pines.

On the Saturday following Thanksgiving, at the edge of a woodsy thicket, a large white-tailed doe raised her grayish brown head, her dark amber eyes alert. She stiffened in silence. The fawn, pure white at her side, stepped, then stood, his long white ears forward, his pink eyes dim-sighted, unlike his mother’s. The doe moved a few noiseless steps to the right, away from the pale fawn. Beyond the cedar boughs, a mottled green mass moved, closer, closer. Too close.

Suddenly, the doe released a piercing snort. With that warning she leaped, her brown frame crashing away from the fawn, back into the thicket. The blast of a rifle filled the air, followed by snapping tree branches and a heavy thump. The mottled green mass surged. The white fawn bolted. The black crows flapped—a circle overhead—drifting to a settled clump in the pines. Back and forth, from lofty views, they squalled the news of the season…

Chapter 2

EVEN IN WINTER, Frank thought the spot was beautiful. The tawny wild grasses rippled in the wind, their camel color stippled with the darker gold of hearty broom sedge, a tall, scratchy weed which farmers cursed for its inveterate march across otherwise productive fields. Here and there a cedar sprouted, tiny volunteer Christmas trees planted by fleeting birds or animals relieving themselves of seed diets on journeys to fields farther on. On this patch of vacant land, three pin oaks—dense, mighty, and red in the fall; bare, brown, and lofty in winter—stood stoutly, reaching hefty branches toward a grey sky.

Developers were gobbling up rural country like this fast. But there were some tracts left, and conservationists like Frank and Bill wanted to preserve as much as possible for future generations. Both had invested their farms in conservation easements, which banned development. Sure, they got a tax break from the deal. But they also protected the land for posterity, both for humans and wildlife. The eleven-acre patch behind the Circle Market no doubt would go commercial someday. Frank hated the thought that a “For Sale” sign might sprout at any moment. Once that happened, instead of field daisies and tough green cedars, there’d be garish lights and drab concrete; instead of sleepy crickets in golden grasses, there would be rumbling trucks and rushing people—all the indistinguishable chaos homogenizing the identity of rural towns all over America.

Chapter 3

WHEN BILL OBSERVED, “It seems to me we’ve all escaped the house and landed here this morning.” They all nodded.

Frank brightened. “You know-—and this sounds nuts, I realize-—but I think women should swap lives for a day or two and see how the other half lives.”

“On somebody else’s budget?” Bill asked.

“Yeah.”

Larry frowned. “You mean wife-swapping like the TV show?”

“Nothing untoward, nothing—well—not really swap,”

Frank protested…

The three men smiled. At that moment, Flossie swished beside them with a heavy tray of hot hamburgers and fries. “Best in town!” Frank said as she set down the first sizzling platter.

“Yeah!” Larry grunted happily.

“Terrific,” Bill smiled as Flossie unloaded the last plate. “Need anything else?” The men shook their heads. “Have fun, boys!” Flossie drawled.

The men began vigorously shaking salt, pepper, and ketchup over the steaming food. Bill picked up his hamburger and rephrased his thought.

“A Christmas Swap. For a day. For fun and for charity. Let’s think about that.”

The other two stared at him, Frank’s eyes slowly beginning to crinkle at their edges, and Larry’s astonishment wrinkling along his brow. Then, over the best burgers in town, the trio bent their heads together to hatch a plan.

Additional Illustrations

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