The Lost Phoebe by Theodore Dreiser

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The Lost Phoebe by Th. Dreiser

Old Henry Belfsneider and his wife Phoebe loved one another the way people do who have lived together a long, long time. They were simple farm people. Their world was their fruit trees, cornfield and backyard with its pigs and chickens. The rest of the world was far away like stars in the sky.

Sometimes Henry worried about death. During his worries he would raise his old voice and say, “Phoebe, where is my corn-pipe? You’re always taking things that belong to me.”

“Now, you hush, Henry,” his wife would say. “If you keep talking like that I will go away. And then what would you do? There is nobody to look after you. Your corn-pipe is on the table where you put it.”

Old Henry knew his wife would never leave him. The only leaving he feared was death. He often wondered how he could live without Phoebe.

When she wanted him to get a pall of water Henry liked to say, “Do this, do that. Always asking me to do something. Women are never satisfied.”

Phoebe would smile. She could see the inner happiness shining in his eyes. Henry talked sharply, but he never forgot to get water and wood for the fire.

In this way they lived happily in their simple world.

One day in the early spring Phoebe became sick and died. Old Henry watched them put her body in the earth.

Neighbors asked Henry to come and live with them, but he would not leave. He wanted to be near the place where his Phoebe lay in the earth. He tried to work around the farm, but it was difficult to return to an empty house at night.

At night he read the newspaper, but most of the time he just sat looking at the floor wondering where Phoebe was and how soon he would die.

For five months he lived like this. Then, there was a change. It happened one night after he had gone to bed. There was a bright moon in the sky. Its silver light fell on the old chairs and table in the bedroom. The moonlight on the chair and the half-open door made a shadow. The shadow looked like Phoebe. She was sitting by the table the way she had done so many times before.

“Phoebe,” he called in a weak voice. “Have you come back?”

The shadow in the chair did not move. Henry got up and slowly walked toward it. When he came near the table he saw that there was nothing on the chair but his old coat.

Another night he thought he saw her again. He felt a soft wind blow in the room. When the wind blew away, the shadow of Phoebe went away, too.

A third night when he was sleeping she came to the bed and put her hand on his head.

“Poor Henry,” she said gently. “I am sorry you are alone.”

He awoke and was sure he saw her leave the room. Phoebe had come back. Night after night, he waited. Then, one morning he awoke with a surprising new thought. Perhaps, she was not dead. Perhaps, Phoebe had just gone away. They had argued about the corn-pipe and she had left the house. Yes, that was it. She was always making Jokes about leaving him. This time she had really gone.

That morning he started to walk to the nearest neighbors.

“Why, hello, Henry!” said Farmer Dodge who was taking grain to market. “Where are you going this morning?”

“Have you seen Phoebe?” asked Henry.

“Phoebe who?”

Farmer Dodge knew Henry’s Phoebe was dead.

“My Phoebe,” Henry said sharply. “Who do you think I mean?”

“You must be joking,” said Farmer Dodge. “You cannot be talking about your Phoebe. She is dead.”

“Dead? Not my Phoebe. She left me this morning while I was sleeping. We argued about my corn-pipe last night and that is why she left. But I can find her. She went over to Matilda Race’s farm. Yes, that is where she is.”

Henry started to walk fast down the road.

“The poor old man is sick in his mind,” Dodge said to himself. “He has been living alone too long.”

Henry met no one until he reached Matilda’s farm. His Phoebe and Matilda Race had been good friends. Phoebe must be here.

He opened the gate and walked to the house. Matilda opened the door.

“Why, Henry Reifsneider! What a surprise!

“Is Phoebe here?” Henry asked.

“Phoebe? Which Phoebe?”

“Why my Phoebe, of course, Henry smiled a little. You do not have to keep it a secret. She is here, isn’t she?”

He looked inside the house.

“Well,” Matilda Race said. “You poor old man. Come in and sit down while I get you some coffee and food. I will take you to Phoebe. I know where she is.”

While Matilda worked in the kitchen she talked to Henry, but he was not listening. He was thinking about Phoebe.

He decided she was not there.

“I will go now,” he said getting up. “I think she went over to the Murrey farm.”

Then he was out on the road again.

It was like this for many weeks. Every night he returned to his house to see if Phoebe had come back. Soon everyone in the area knew old Henry and answered his questions. “I have not seen her,” they would say, or, “No, Henry, she has not been here today.”

It was in the seventh year of looking when Henry came to Red Hill. It was late at night and he was tired and sleepy. Years of walking and very little food had made him thin. After a while he fell asleep, with his head resting on his knees.

When he awoke it was still dark. The moon shone brightly through the trees. Henry saw a light move across the road. It danced through the woods. Was it Phoebe?

He jumped up. He was sure he could see her in that light. Yes there she was. The young Phoebe he had known many years ago. Suddenly, he remembered her young beauty, her warm, friendly smile, the blue dress she had worn the day he first met her.

“Phoebe!” he called. “Have you really come? Have you really answered me?”

He began to feel young and strong again. He ran to follow the moving light. Then, a soft wind blew through the leaves, and she was gone.

“Phoebe!” he cried. “Do not leave me, please! Please, stay with me.”

He ran as fast as his old legs would go. When he came to the top of the hill he looked down into the valley of shadows below. Tears of happiness came into his eyes when he saw Phoebe again. Yes, there she was. Down in the valley smiling up at him. She was in the same blue dress. She waved a hand and seemed to say, “Come! Come with me. Henry felt the strong pull of a new world where he and Phoebe would always be together. He gave a happy cry, “Wait, Phoebe! Wait! I’m coming.”

The next day, some farmer boys found Henry at the bottom of the hill. His body was broken. There was a soft happy smile on his face, the same smile he had known when Phoebe was alive.


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