Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
“I think I could make a grand home for myself in that cherry tree,” Anne said, pointing out the grey sapling to Bash. Gilbert approached the pair quietly, enjoying the scene.
“You’ll be dying of cold here on the ground just as fast as you’d freeze to death in a naked tree with no leaves for warmth,” Bash countered, teeth chattering even when bundled under two heavy coats, a wool scarf and hat.
“We warned you about Canadian winters,” Anne chided fondly. “And it’s not nearly that cold. Look! The sun’s out.”
“That is no sun, Queen Anne,” Bash admonished, pointing above them with betrayed accusation. “That is a false sun; a big lantern in the sky that gives off no heat. You and Gilbert did not warn me about that.”
“We did, you just didn’t listen very well,” Gilbert piped up, clapping his brother hard on the shoulder, making Bash wince and whinge. “Come on. I’ve got us a sled.”
“Oh! Just like the song!” Anne exclaimed eagerly before starting to sing. “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh…”
Gilbert joined Anne, humming the melody as he led her and Bash to Bright River’s stables, just on the west side of the station, where a stall-hand had already hitched a low, shallow wagon bed to a stunning shire colt.
“She’s a beauty,” Anne sighed, her song cutting off immediately as she looked in awe at the horse. Dropping her carpet bag in the bed, Anne approached the gentle giant with earnest delight, brushing her hands along the animal’s flank before making her way to the front so she could admire the horse’s big black eyes. “What’s her name?”
“His name is Midnight,” Gilbert said, so enchanted watching Anne commune with the horse that he didn’t even hear Bash grumble as he settled into the wagon bed, squeezing his large body down as low as it would go and covering himself in both luggage and blankets.
“What a perfectly perfect name,” Anne sighed, petting the horse’s muzzle. “Thank you kindly, Midnight, for taking us to Avonlea. My name is Anne and it’s a true pleasure to meet you. I’m sorry our acquaintanceship will be short, but I’ve no doubt it will be lovely all the same.”
“You could come and visit him, if you wanted,” Gilbert suggested, a bit shy. “I bought him, so he’ll be living at the Blythe-Lacroix orchard.”
“That sounds nice,” Anne said, just as shy to accept the offer as Gilbert had been making it. With a final friendly pat, Anne left Midnight and hoisted herself up on the front seat, Gilbert joining her.
“All set?” he asked as he took the reins.
“I think I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Bash grumbled.
“Oh hush,” Anne teased, turning back to look at the shivering, disgruntled man. “We gave your island a try, fair and square. Now it’s your turn to try ours.”
Gilbert didn’t allow himself to let out a barking laugh when he caught the Spanish curse Bash muttered, and he wondered if Anne had even an inkling of what their friend had insinuated about where their island could shove it.
“Do you want to give it a go?” he asked, holding out the reins to Anne, knowing she was always keen to try new things. For a moment, her grey eyes lit up and her gloved fingers reached eagerly for the leather straps, but they paused in the air, as if suddenly frozen, before Anne laid her hands back down in her lap.
“Not this time,” she said. “I’m too distracted to pay any attention so I’ll probably drive us into a ditch.”
The joke was weak, and underneath it Gilbert could detect a hint of petrifying fright. He knew Anne was a wreck over being reunited with the Cuthberts confessing on the train from Charlottetown that she both loathed and longed for the moment to come. He was at a loss over how to quell her nerves, so instead, Gilbert kept Midnight at a steady pace on the path to Green Gables, not too fast or too slow, and he let Anne be as she sorted through her knotted emotions.
“Oh! It’s the Lake of Shining Waters,” she exclaimed, tapping Bash’s head so the man might look up and admire the scenery. “I do love that it hasn’t frozen over. A glistening lake in the middle of a winter wonderland is so magical. I suppose…well, I suppose I’ll be able to see Diana, too, if the Cuthberts still –”
“They want you, Anne,” Gilbert said. “Do I need to recite the letter to you again?”
“I don’t know that I’ll really believe it until it’s all for certain,” she supposed.
“And when would that be?” Gilbert asked.
“I’ll know the moment when it comes,” she answered back, trying to sound confident, but unable to keep the unsure tremor from her voice. “Oh look!” she exclaimed, happy to divert the subject. “It’s the White Way of Delight! I saw it in full bloom last September, but I never imagined it would retain its astonishing beauty even in winter. Look at the snow along each branch. Doesn’t it make you think of a bridal veil, all lacy and glowing with jewels and pearls?”
“What will your imagination dream up next?” Bash sighed, mesmerized by the way Anne spoke of the boughs that canopied over them.
The rest of the ride was made in silence that started out comfortable, but was soon overwrought with Anne’s anticipation, especially when the familiar silhouette of Green Gables came into view. She sat ramrod straight beside Gilbert as Midnight drew them closer, and for a moment Gilbert thought he could see a shade of that eager thirteen-year old Anne who must have been so jubilant to see Green Gables for the first time only to have her hope massacred before she’d even breeched the threshold of the farmhouse. Now it was a fourteen-year old Anne returning to the scene of her dashed dreams, bravely, if not a bit apprehensively, seeking again the acceptance she’d been denied from the same people who had cast her out.
She really was the most courageous person he’d ever met.
As they made their way up the drive, Gilbert saw that the gate was already open, left ajar in expectation of their arrival, a good sign he thought. He directed Midnight towards the house, but before he could get very close, the side door of Green Gables was flung open and a grey-haired man in boots and a heavy coat hobbled outside, rushing for the sled as fast as his age and health would allow, an older woman tailing behind him.
Hearing Mathew Cuthbert call out her name, Anne could no longer contain the wild emotions that had been twisting throughout her spirit like a cyclone since the moment she’d read the letter from Marilla two weeks ago. Slipping off her seat before the sled came to a full stop, Anne ran as fast as a jackrabbit towards the siblings who were rushing down the lane to her as well.
Mathew reached Anne first, his arms coming around the girl as fiercely protective as any father’s. Anne flung herself into the embrace, her shoulders heaving as she cried long and hard against Mathew’s chest. Marilla hung back, but the desperate look on her face to reach for the sobbing girl was practically ravenous.
“It’s alright,” Mathew said in his gentle way, trying to sooth the crying girl.
“You went back for me!” Anne hollered. “I didn’t know! If I had I wouldn’t have run away. I would have waited for you. I wanted to come back. I wanted to call Green Gables my home and you my family.”
“It is your home!” Marilla exclaimed, surprising herself with the emotional outburst. Anne turned towards the stern woman, eyes glassy and rimmed red with tears, asking a question she was desperate for Marilla to answer. “And we’re your family, Anne Shirley, if you’ll have us.”
Sniffing, Anne stepped out of Mathew’s hold and took slow, even steps towards Marilla. The older woman kept her expression composed, but it seemed that she was just as anxious as the redhead who stood before her.
“I rather like the way Anne Shirley-Cuthbert sounds,” Anne confessed, her voice a warbling mess. “It’s a name full of scope for the imagination, don’t you think?”
And before Marilla could completely nod her head to agree, Anne flung herself against the woman, holding tight to her waist and crying all over again. Awkwardly, Marilla wrapped her arms over Anne’s shoulders, eventually settling into the embrace as naturally as any mother.
“Thank you for finding her,” Mathew said, approaching the sled to shake Gilbert’s hand.
“She sort of found me,” Gilbert replied, nodding his head towards Bash who also took a turn at shaking Mathew’s hand.
“She found both of us,” the Trinidadian said.
“S’good,” Mathew muttered. “She wasn’t alone. I was always so…worried that she was alone.”
“Won’t you come in for some tea?” Marilla asked, having joined the men at the sled, her arm around Anne’s shoulders, the girl in question wrapped in the shawl Marilla had been wearing when she’d rushed out to greet them. Seeing Anne so happy, her face a blotchy mess, skin still damp with tears, but her lips turned up in a smile overflowing with joy, Gilbert knew that his friend’s incandescent moment of belief and acceptance in her new reality as a wanted child had been realized, and couldn’t bear to intrude on the new family a minute longer.
“We’ve got to head back to the orchard, make sure the house is still standing,” he said, ignoring Bash’s grimace at being denied a hot cup of tea. “But thank you.”
“The house is fine,” Mathew said. “Me and some of the other men…we made sure it kept.”
“That’s very kind. I…I don’t know what to say,” Gilbert answered, nearly choking on his own overwhelming appreciation.
“It’s good to see you back, Gilbert,” Marilla said.
“Take care of yourself,” Anne added, bounding up on the sled so she could give Gilbert an intense hug, mindless of the borderline scandalized expressions that crossed the faces of the Cuthbert siblings. Gilbert was also blind to the way Marilla and Mathew gaped at the pair’s open regard. He was too caught up in the embrace himself, squeezing Anne tight to his chest and laying his cheek along the side of her head, catching another hint of her hair’s clean perfume before having to let her go.
The two friends took a moment to stare at one another, the silent gaze filled with a dictionary of unspoken words. There was experience, and understanding, affection, and yearning in that frozen look under the shadow of Green Gables. Rather desperately, Gilbert felt he needed to memorize Anne thoroughly, trying to commit her face to memory, but he kept being drawn back into her grey eyes, the irises absolutely crystalline in the Avonlea winter.
“Stay out of trouble, Queen Anne,” Bash joked sweetly, placing a hand over the girl’s and giving her freckled fingers a squeeze. The gesture broke the moment, and Anne gave Bash his own fierce hug.
“Impossible,” the girl quipped, giving an impish smile before snatching her carpetbag and leaping off the sled. “See you,” she said.
Nodding, Gilbert clicked his tongue and urged Midnight onward.
“See you, Carrots!” he called over his shoulder, laughing as Anne raged at him for using her hateful nickname. It made him feel like things would be alright between them, even though he couldn’t help feeling that he was, in a way, letting her go.
Anne would be occupied with her new family, learning what it meant to be a Cuthbert, reconnecting with Diana, and figuring out how to help run the farm. She’d have little time for him before the winter break was through and school was running again, and who knew what school would be like. Mr. Phillips was never a generous man, too pompous and proud, so he likely wouldn’t have much forgiveness for Anne or Gilbert when it came to catching up with their peers on the coursework. Perhaps that would be their opportunity to remain connected; helping each other out with school.
He'd have to wait and see if that would be the case.
The ride to the newly christened Blythe-Lacroix orchard was quiet save for Bash’s odd grumbles about never knowing warmth again. When he finally saw his stone farmhouse, Gilbert started to feel a great anxious typhoon churning through his insides, much the same as Anne had when they’d approached Green Gables.
Only, there wasn’t a family of single senior siblings waiting for Gilbert.
There was nothing on the other side of the door save for the memories he’d tried to lock away in the house a year ago when he’d left, and the thought of having to face them again, so obvious and unavoidable now he was here, was just a tad daunting. Still, Gilbert had made his mind up about his life, and he wasn’t going to back down now. So, taking a page from Anne’s book and spooling every last fiber of bravery into his soul, Gilbert urged Midnight forward and faced his ghosts.
“Welcome home, Sebastian,” he said, gesturing with a sweeping arm at the little farmhouse and all the land beyond. His friend, who had knelt up in the wagon bed when they started up the drive to the house, smiled and clapped Gilbert on the back.
“Welcome home to you, too,” he said.
They made quick work of unhitching the sled and getting Midnight settled in a stall in the barn for the evening. Then, with a bit of bated breath, Gilbert unlocked his front door and walked into the house he’d once believed he was leaving forever.
It was cold, that was expected, so his first course of action was to get a fire started both in the stove and in the parlour hearth. Luckily, there was still some wood left in the woodpile, though the family of mice that had made a cozy nest among the old pine logs weren’t terribly pleased when Gilbert uprooted their home. With two fires started and a kettle of hot water waiting to boil, Gilbert’s next course of action was to find Bash something warm to wrap himself in before the man rattled himself to death.
The only thing Gilbert could think of that would offer immediate relief was one of his father’s old sweaters. They’d been made from mohair by Mrs. Kincannon when they’d first come back from Alberta, and John Blythe had worn one every day until his last.
Entering his father’s room, Gilbert was nearly blown back by the raw, sad air that hung in the chamber like a curtain. Everything was where he’d left it, from the evening hat atop the wardrobe, to the army medal on the nightstand, to the book, Leaves of Grass, placed delicately in the centre of the bed, a bookmark keeping place of John Blythe’s favourite poem, Song of the Open Road. If he listened closely, Gilbert was certain he might hear the echo of his own voice, a year younger and so changed to how he sounded now, reciting the verses, the phantom of his father sitting up in the bed and hanging on to every word.
“Alright?” Bash asked, having creeped up behind Gilbert, startling the sixteen-year old out of his melancholy daydream.
“Yeah. Just a moment,” he said, going to the chest at the foot of the bed and retrieving a lush grey mohair sweater. “Here, that should keep you warm until the fires do the rest.”
“Thanks,” Bash said, pulling the sweater over his head and smoothing the warm fabric over his chest. “You sure you’re alright?”
“I will be,” Gilbert answered honestly. “I just never expected it to be so…the same. It’s like I never left.”
“Maybe you never did,” Bash offered. “Not really.”
“Maybe,” Gilbert conceded, leading the way out of his father’s bedroom and heading for the kitchen where the water in the kettle was starting to boil. He worked with mechanical proficiency making the tea, using the good china so that their first cup of tea together in their shared home would be just a tad decorated. “To home,” Gilbert toasted, to which Bash agreed with a big smile.
“Now, don’t be sulking around all heartbroken ‘cuz the girl you love isn’t here,” the older man teased with a serious tone when they finished their tea.
“Fine, fine, the girl you’re mad over,” he pestered.
“I’m not –”
“Alright! The girl you have a massive crush on,” he goaded.
“Bash!” Gilbert blustered, making the man laugh heartily. “You know what, for that, you get to clean up,” Gilbert announced, stepping away from the table and putting on his boots and jacket.
“Running back to Green Gables so soon?” Bash joked, dodging the hat Gilbert threw his way. “Careful! Don’t want to break the china, now. What would you serve Anne tea in when she comes to visit?”
“I’ll just be outside if you need me,” Gilbert said, rolling his eyes as Bash continued to chuckle. “Feel free to roam around, get to know the place. It’s your home, too.”
And before Bash could make another crack at Gilbert’s expense, the young man retreated outdoors.
He stood on the porch for a moment, taking in the fields of snow and sucking in a deep breath of the harsh winter air, the biting chill seeming to shock his body with the sudden realization that he was back home.
The reality of it hadn’t quite hit him until this moment.
Knowing what he had to do immediately, Gilbert started walking through the snow, his footprints the first to break the pure white drifts. He trudged through the neglected field to the little graveyard situated peacefully under the bare maple, a strong sentry presiding over the souls of three generations of Blythes. With no hat to remove, Gilbert simply bowed his head before taking a seat on the cold stone bench just outside the low iron enclosure, and addressed the headstone that was freshest in the plot, its smooth grey surface as pristine as the day it had been placed, the lettering stark and deep with little inclination to erode away like the names and dates on some of the other stones already had.
”Hi Dad,” Gilbert began, as nervous to be speaking to his father’s stone as if he were speaking to the man himself. But he was addressing his spirit, so in all the ways that mattered, he really was talking to his father, and he could practically hear John Blythe scolding him for not keeping in touch for so long. “It’s been…well, it’s been a really incredible year and I’m going to tell you all about it. I guess I should start with Charlottetown. I was there for about a month after you died. I worked at the docks and got a room in a boarding house in the city, right downtown in the middle of the traffic and shops; where all the action is, just like you used to say whenever we went someplace together. Then I got a commission on the Primrose, a real steam ship, and she took me all over the world, but before I left, on my last night in Charlottetown I met this girl. Anne – with an ‘E’ – red hair, fiery temper…I’m going to tell you all about her.”
And so he did.
For hours, Gilbert talked to his father’s grave, speaking to the stone as plainly as if he were speaking to the man. He told him about every port, of the world wonders he’d seen, the people he’d met, the strangers he’d helped, the family he’d found again.
He told his dad about his first kiss, and his new brother, and mostly, he told his dad all about Anne.
And when he was through and there was no voice echoing in his head the response he imagined John Blythe might make to the amazing tale his son had just told him, Gilbert sighed, a broken, warbling little noise, and he wiped away the tears he could feel ready to fall before they had a chance.
“Not sure what you’d think of me wanting to be a doctor. I can’t even imagine what you’d say, what your face would look like when I broke the news…Anne would be able to; imagine it, I mean...
“Dad…I wish you were here.”
Gilbert would always wish John Blythe had lived.
He missed his dad. That was a feeling that would never truly go away. It would sit within his heart like a weight, not so heavy as to drag him down, but palatable enough that, if he searched for it, Gilbert would easily detect its presence. The ache of missing his father was part of him, now, and would remain so for the rest of his days.
And that was okay.
Gilbert’s grief was okay, his sadness was okay, his bitterness was okay, just as much as his rediscovered love of life, his zeal for adventure, his affection for new friends and family was okay.
He was okay.
And was going to keep being okay, from one day to the next.
That was something John Blythe would be proud of, Gilbert was certain, and it was with that surety that the young man left his family plot with the promise to return soon, and made his way back to his house where his new family, his future, was waiting.
The first day of school after the winter break, Gilbert was up with the dawn, feeding the pigs, setting Midnight out to pasture, milking the cow, and getting breakfast on for Bash while trying to review the notes Charlie had lent him after their last hockey game.
The boys had come by the house a few days after Gilbert’s return, bearing dishes of homemade meals from their mothers and sisters, awkward as they asked if it was true that a negro was living with Gilbert and then being positively moronic when they finally met Bash and stared at the man in sputtering awe and trepidation.
It only took one serving of Bash’s crab callaloo (and a sneaky nip of his rum) for most of the fellas to take a shine to Gilbert’s new brother. They seemed to enjoy Bash’s penchant for telling an exciting story of life at sea (he always was the better storyteller) and when the Trinidadian joined the boys in some good-natured ribbing over their mutual friend, Gilbert was certain his chums had somehow found it in their hearts to forgive his cold departure of a year ago.
When they’d invited him to play a game of hockey, he knew they had…
It was New Year’s Day.
The sun was out, there was a fresh sheet of snow draped over every field on the island, and the air was positively artic. A perfect day for hockey.
The young sons of Avonlea were eager to join up and start their game. With brooms borrowed from home, the younger boys set about sweeping the snow off the pond behind the Sloane’s property while the older lads shoveled the sleet onto the banks. Once their rink was clear, skates were strapped on, sticks were grabbed, and teams were chosen. Charlie picked Gilbert first.
“Hope you know the difference between your sea legs and your skate legs,” he joked, and Gilbert took the teasing in good stride, even making a point of commenting that his legs seemed to know themselves perfectly well when he scored the first goal of the game.
For the rest of the afternoon, the boys played, and Gilbert lost himself in the sport. It wasn’t until he was rushing neck-in-neck with Billy for the ball, this pivotal move the one that would win or lose his team the game, that Gilbert found himself filled with such a weight of gratitude that he stumbled, the tip of his blade catching on the ice and making him wobble. Billy, ever the cad, saw the blunder and took immediate advantage, shoving Gilbert in the side to topple him into a snowbank while he managed to take the ball and score the final goal. Regaining his balance and brushing the snow off his trousers, Gilbert couldn’t find it in himself to care about the check or the loss, even as Charlie started railing against Billy for the unnecessary contact and calling foul on the point.
It didn’t matter.
Gilbert was playing hockey on the same pond he’d played hockey on most winters with the same group of boys he’d been playing hockey with since he’d learned to skate. He was an orphan, caught somewhere between being a boy and man, a sixteen year old with a black brother and business partner and dreams of being a doctor all because he’d run away from home and helped a desperate prostitute give birth in a hot, humid shack on an island that was so very different from his own.
There was so much life that Gilbert had lived, leagues more than his friends, and sometimes that deeper knowledge was isolating. He still sometimes felt as if he didn’t belong, but then there were moments like this, when he was with his friends just playing hockey and being kids and it was as glorious as it was strange.
It made Gilbert wonder if he would ever get used to growing up.
“Hey Gilbert!” Moody called out, waving him over to the fire they’d built before starting the game. Most of the lads had shed their skates and were huddled around the flames. There was a pot of Mrs. Sloane’s soup bubbling over the blaze, and Charlie was proudly ladling the hot broth into tin cups for the eager bunch, declaring his mother’s chicken noodle soup to be the best cuisine in all of Avonlea.
“Not as good as Ms. Cuthbert’s plum puffs,” Paul (was it Paul McLean or Paul Edwards, Gilbert wasn’t sure) challenged, and many of the boys expressed their agreement.
“Speaking of that old spinster,” Billy snorted, “did you hear she and her kooky brother adopted an orphan?”
“Really? Why?” Moody asked.
“Probably to help on their farm. I mean, it’s not as if they can afford that Acadian boy forever,” Charlie surmised.
“Well, they adopted a girl so I don’t think she’ll be doing much farm work,” Billy said. “But I heard she’s a dog, so who knows, maybe they’ll let her loose to hunt ducks and rabbits in the wild!”
That horrid jape got all the fellas laughing and Gilbert couldn’t help stumbling into Billy so hard the snobby boy upended his cup of soup all over the front of his trousers.
“Blythe!” he hollered, shoveling snow onto his heated, and painful, groin. “What the hell, bud?”
“Guess I tripped,” Gilbert said, not sounding the least contrite. “And serves your right, anyway. What do you know about the Cuthberts’ daughter? Give her a chance before you go making accusations.”
“Right. Like I’m even going to talk to that orphan trash,” Billy scoffed.
“Well, you’re talking to this orphan trash, so I don’t know why you think you’re so above it,” Gilbert replied, and the whole group went deathly silent, waiting to see and hear what Billy would do next.
When the bitter blond just clenched his jaw and added another pile of snow to his soring crotch, Gilbert felt his point had been made. He didn’t linger long after that, collecting his stick and skates and wishing the gang a nice evening before he started for his home.
It was Moody and Charlie, their faces bright as radishes as they jogged through the snow to catch up.
“Hey,” Gilbert greeted.
“Billy’s just an ass,” Moody managed to huff out before Charlie could speak. “We don’t think that about you.”
“Thanks,” Gilbert said, “but no one should think that about anyone. It’s not easy being an orphan. It’s really lonely most of the time.”
“Then why did you leave?” Charlie asked, forlorn and barely managing to disguise his hurt.
The realization was cutting as, for the first time, Gilbert could see how much he’d hurt his friends by vanishing without so much as a goodbye. But that was the thing about grief: it has the strength to change a person, make them selfish, a slave to their own pain with no way of seeing the cracks in the hearts of others. Perhaps Charlie and Moody weren’t as devastated by John Blythe’s passing as Gilbert had been, but they had been despairing, only it was for the well-being of their friend and then, later, the betrayal that friend had visited upon them with his unannounced departure. Understanding how much he had wounded his mates made Gilbert realize how much more thankful he needed to be that they were willing to welcome him back into the fold.
He’d have to make it up to them, over and over if necessary. He could start by trying to explain himself.
“It doesn’t make sense anymore, the reasons I left,” Gilbert started, ashamed. “It was like…I was feeling too much at once when all I wanted was to feel nothing. Leaving here, it seemed like the fastest and easiest way to do that.”
“We would have helped you,” Charlie said. “Whatever you’d needed we would have tried.”
“That’s the thing, I didn’t even know what I needed. I didn’t know for a really long time.”
“And now you do?” Moody wondered.
“I’m starting to,” Gilbert confessed. “So, don’t be mean to the new girl, eh? Being an orphan is already hard by itself, never mind having to be the new kid in class, too.”
“But she came from the orphan’s asylum in Nova Scotia,” Charlie lamented.
“No she didn’t,” Gilbert said with plain confidence. “She came from all over the world. And if you’re nice to her, maybe she’ll tell you all about it.”
“You know her?” Moody asked.
“I do,” Gilbert confessed, smiling at the memory of Anne, wondering what she was doing back at Green Gables. Helping Marilla in the kitchen, or in the barn with Mathew, maybe pestering the Baynard boy or telling fairy tales to the chickens. She could be climbing trees, or taking tea with Diana Barry, or making an army of snowmen to line the Green Gables drive. Maybe she was in her bedroom, painting the walls with murals of their time at sea, or maybe she was writing their adventures in a notebook, chronicling their seafaring days in volumes that would be published for all the island to read.
Or maybe she was staring out her gable window and looking out over the vast wintry fields that separated her farm and his orchard and she was thinking of him, wondering what he was doing right that moment.
“Is she cute?” Moody asked, his inquiry cutting across Gilbert’s imaginings.
Unable to hold back his bashful smile, Gilbert decided it was time to take his leave of his friends, but not before answering Moody’s question with complete honesty.
“She’s a dryad.”
And with that proclamation, Gilbert waved farewell to his chums and headed back for home…
Gilbert rushed to get the bacon out of the frying pan and onto a plate. A quick look at the table told him everything was set for Bash to have a very nice breakfast, his first on his own since coming to Avonlea a week ago.
Wondering if he should put the kettle on or leave that up to Bash, Gilbert’s musings were broken by an eager rapping on his side-door. Curious, Gilbert marched to the door off his kitchen, opened it, and had the wind knocked right out of his lungs.
She stood on his porch as prim and proper as he had ever seen her. Her coat was new, made of wool and dyed blue to match the cap on her head that was pulled low to shield her ears from winter’s fierce breath. There was a burgundy scarf he suspected was Mr. Cuthbert’s folded tightly against her neck, the fringe sticking out like thick little hairs around the collar. Her cheeks were kissed rosy from the biting cold air and there was a trace of snowflakes melting on her eyelashes.
Gilbert felt his heart give a curious ‘bu-bump!’ at the sight of her, and he had to swallow hard before speaking.
“G-good morning,” he stuttered, wanting to crawl in a hole for how flabbergasted he sounded.
“Good morning,” Anne parroted, smiling and glowing with glee. When she said no more, and Gilbert could not think of what to say further, he cleared his throat and flicked his gaze to either side of Anne, hoping she’d continue. “School,” was all she said, as if he should be able to follow her meaning. When he only flashed her a quizzical look, Anne jutted her chin over her shoulder and threw Gilbert a meaningful expression.
He still didn’t understand and shrugged to tell her so.
Anne rolled her eyes and grumbled.
“Are you ready to go to school?” she groused, her tone scolding, as if he were the most hopeless case in all of Prince Edward Island. “Do you even have your books? Your slate?”
“I do,” Gilbert retorted. “Just…uh, give me minute.”
Forgetting his manners completely Gilbert left the door ajar and abandoned Anne on the porch as he dashed away, stampeding up the stairs to his room so he could collect his school things.
“Who’s that at the door?” Bash asked, poking his head into Gilbert’s room, a pair of small trimming scissors in his hand and a toque pulled low over his ears. Apparently, his morning beard grooming had been interrupted.
“It’s Anne. She wants to go to school together,” Gilbert explained, fumbling to throw his books and slate into his satchel. He was so thrilled that she hadn’t forgotten him, that she wanted him to walk to school with her, that he didn’t even dignify Bash’s knowing smirk with a practiced denial.
“Have a lovely day!” the Trinidadian called after Gilbert as he rushed downstairs, and Gilbert silently congratulated himself for not being goaded by the teasing tone of his friend’s farewell.
Anne was standing in the doorway, watching with mirth as Gilbert went about packing Charlie’s notes in his bag, gulping back the last of his morning coffee, then rushing to put on his boots, coat, scarf, gloves and hat before joining the redhead.
“Let’s go!” he exclaimed, happy to be away from Bash’s joking and happier still to be in Anne’s company.
Anne smiled and led the way, beginning to chatter immediately as the pair ambled through the knee-high snow towards the woods and on the path to school. She started regaling Gilbert with her many mini-adventures in their week apart, beginning by saying she was sorry for not being able to see him beforehand, only the Cuthberts were so eager to get her settled in Green Gables, and truthfully, she was very keen herself to understand what it meant to have the daily routine of parents.
There were chores to learn, and animals to name, and a whole farm to discover. Marilla was fairly eager to teach Anne how to cook, and in the last seven days of practice the fourteen-year old was confident she could make a decent (and tasty) scone, of which Gilbert and Bash could be the judges if they accepted Marilla’s invitation to Saturday tea.
She lamented the too cheerful swagger of Jerry Baynard, and the prying questions of Rachel Lynde. But those minor annoyances were outshone by the joy of riding a horse with Mathew and walking alongside the Lake of Shining Waters with Diana and running an errand at the general store for Marilla. And of course, there was nothing that could compare to going to sleep every night in a bed that belonged to her, in a room all her own, in a house that was her home that she shared with people she called family.
Anne was happy, and to hear it, Gilbert was just as elated.
“Did you know? There’s a new teacher,” the redhead reported excitedly, jumping into a new topic.
“I didn’t know that,” Gilbert answered, wondering why Charlie nor Moody had thought to mention it.
“Seems your Mr. Phillips made a hasty leave for Toronto after he was jilted at the alter by someone named Prissy Andrews. It sounds like a positively delightful tale of tragical romance. Diana didn’t know as much as I had hoped, so I’ll need to make fast friends with the rest of the girls to get the whole of the story since Marilla doesn’t believe in gossip. Oh, Gil! I’m simply euphoric to be reunited with my Diana. She is so glorious with her dark hair and dark eyes and a most exquisite smile. She and I have renewed our pledge to be best friends for the duration of time –”
“I thought I was your best friend,” Gilbert quipped.
“You are my kindred spirit,” Anne corrected.
“What’s the difference?”
“Do I really need to explain it to you?”
She really didn’t, and his lopsided smile told her as much.
“Come on,” he said, showing Anne the way through the woods. “You don’t want to make a bad first impression on day one.”
Anne chuckled as she followed him, keeping up to his long gait by fairly bouncing like a rabbit through the snow. She continued to chatter away, telling him of Marilla’s laundry list of rules when it came to using the stove, and Mathew’s stealthy sneaking of sweets to her each night before bed, and how Jerry’s singing positively infuriated her to the point she was considering taking up old habits of striking boys over the head with the nearest object.
The closer they got to the schoolhouse, however, the quieter Anne became, until they were standing at the bottom of the stairs of the white-washed building and she had totally clamed up and was rooted to the spot. Once, her looming silence would have worried Gilbert, even frightened him, but over the last year Gilbert had become the best reader of Anne Shirley. He understood her better than he understood himself, and Gilbert knew that when Anne was nervous, she couldn’t stop herself from talking, but when she was scared, the very opposite would happen.
And being the new kid at a school where the other students had known each other since they were in nappies, was certainly a frightening situation to step in to, perhaps even more terrifying than boarding a strange ship to explore unknown corners of the earth and sea.
Change was always scary. It could be daunting, and lonely, and leave you doubting all you knew about everything, even yourself. But if there was one thing Gilbert had learned in his year away, it was that fear, and doubt, and loneliness and all the challenges that came with them, could be faced with courage and determination, and that it was made all the easier if one had a kindred spirit at their side to lean on in the moments when the world seemed an immovable obstacle.
Gilbert sprinted ahead and up the stairs to the schoolhouse, opening the door and gesturing for Anne to pass inside. He watched her take a deep breath and square her shoulders before ascending the stairs. But when she got to the threshold, she stopped.
Anne looked at him and smiled, her coral lips chapped from the winter air, her cheeks flush from their walk, her eyes sputtering with terrified excitement as if alight with a firecracker, and her hair tied back in those wonderful braids that would always make him think of carrots. In that second she looked so beautiful that Gilbert wondered if maybe he really did have a crush on his best friend.
But those were feelings to be stored and examined another day. For now, there were more important confrontations to face.
Smiling back, Gilbert gestured for Anne to cross the threshold. Instead. She took his hand in hers and squeezed.
“Come on, Doctor Blythe. You’ll never make it to medical school if you can’t even be on time for your first day of class!”
And when Anne marched into the Avonlea schoolhouse, head held high and braids catching in the sunlight, Gilbert was right beside her.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?