(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Henry Reifsneider was born on a rural farm in the American Midwest where the population is steadily decreasing. His family lived on it for generations, but his children either have moved away or have died. Henry’s farm, which he and his wife, Phoebe, now maintain, is in decline. The buildings and even the furniture inside the house are in decay. The fields produce poorly; the animals decrease in number each year; and the apple orchard, full of gnarled old trees, is decomposing.

The story opens with this dismal setting, but the characters’ relationship exhibits hope, love, and contentment, expressed in the first three words of the story: “They lived together.” Phoebe and Henry have been married forty-eight years, during all of which they have lived on this farm. They spent the first ten years of their married life with Henry’s parents, in what would have been a typical extended farming family. Henry and Phoebe are a simple, loving couple whose relationship matures and ripens as their farm decomposes. They take pleasure in the simple daily farm chores. Even their trivial arguments over Henry’s misplaced belongings reveal caring. When Phoebe says that she will desert Henry if he blames her for his lost pipe or knife, Henry knows that Phoebe would never abandon him, except in death.

At the age of sixty-four, Phoebe develops a fever and finally does leave Henry. After her death, Henry refuses to move to the house of a relative, insisting that he can supply his simple needs. He is lonely, however, and finds no...

(The entire section is 629 words.)