Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629
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...
(The entire section contains 629 words.)
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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 joy in the daily chores that brought him happiness when he performed them for Phoebe. He longs for her return, and one night the moonlight creates shadows in the kitchen that resemble her. Another night in the garden, an apparition, a pale light or mist that looks like Phoebe, treads the garden. Henry’s third encounter with the vision crosses the line from an illusion to a hallucination. Grief transforms the lonely old man into a mentally ill man. When Phoebe appears for this third visit, she speaks to him. In his delusional state, Henry ceases to believe that Phoebe died and begins to imagine that she has left him, as she occasionally threatened. When asking neighbors if they have seen Phoebe, Henry explains that she deserted him when he accused her of losing his pipe.
Each morning, Henry searches for Phoebe. At first, he merely asks neighbors if they have seen her, returning to the farm and hoping that Phoebe will be there. As time passes, Henry widens his search, neglecting the farm and eventually not even returning home. In warm weather, he sleeps in the open; in the winter, he seeks shelter in barns beside animals or under outcroppings of rock. Concerned that Phoebe might not see him, Henry begins calling her name. He becomes known by the locals as an old fanatic, yet he has dignity, and his seven-year search takes on the attributes of a religious pilgrimage.
Occasionally Henry awakens in the night believing that the moonlight and shadows among the brush and trees are Phoebe. He collects his few belongings and follows the apparition. On such a night, while camping in a forest near a precipice known as Red Cliff, Henry awakens at two in the morning with the moon illuminating the forest. As he stares at the brush, he thinks he sees Phoebe, not Phoebe as he knew her in old age but a young Phoebe, the beautiful young woman he married. He leaves his belongings and follows this vision by moonlight through the forest. At the edge of Red Cliff, seeing Phoebe in a moonlit apple orchard below, Henry happily leaps to his death, believing that he will finally join her.