When she hears his footsteps crunching in the leaves, Pomona knows.
It’s always in the autumn, when the leaves lose their green and the apples, her especial fruits, ripen in the waning days. When the oak leaves turn bronze and drift to the forest floor, when the first chill descends with the setting sun, Vertumnus comes home to the orchard.
Pomona and the nymphs dance less often as autumn settles in. Instead they gather around a fire started with dead leaves, drink cider, and tell stories. Sometimes Vertumnus arrives by night, when the flames are dancing high and the cider barrel is nearly empty. Sometimes he arrives in early morning, when it is still dark and the goddess is still abed in her bower. Sometimes he arrives in the afternoon, when she and the nymphs are hard at work gathering the apples, pressing the cider, and he strolls through the busy throng casually eating an apple, oak leaves in his hair, a twinkle in his eye.
He always returns. In spring and summer he wanders far, turning the wheel of the seasons. He dallies with Flora in the spring, that wanton hussy with her flowers. Every time she laughs in his arms, another flower opens. Pomona counts the blossoms on her favorite apple tree and knows how many times Flora has come. But she does not lie alone while Vertumnus lies with the flower goddess; she has her nymphs to keep her company, with their long tresses and soft flesh, their clever fingers and tongues.
In the summer he ranges yet further afield, seeking the company of other gods. Silvanus, Faunus, Antinous, Cernunnos, Pan–with gods of the woods and the hunt, of the flocks and herds, he sports and spars, wrestling, fighting with staves, gripping and striking until one of them yields and holds turn to caresses, punctuated by rough kisses. She knows that he runs and runs, as a deer, as a bull, as a stallion, as a lion or a cheetah, the strongest and fleetest male of the lot.
But he comes back. He grows tired of wandering. He misses familiar trees and landmarks. He yearns for the taste of Italian springs. He notices aches and pains, scrapes and bruises, and longs for a tender touch to soothe them. He listens for the singing of the nymphs and follows it back, back to the grove, back home.
She is always waiting. She will always be here. She will offer him wine and cider, venison and good bread; she will let him eat his fill and talk himself dry. And then she will send the nymphs away and lead him into her bower, where she will lay him down and take her fill of him, over and over, with immortal passion, until they are both spent, replete, ready for winter’s sleep.
As the nights lengthen, as the cold comes in, as the leaves fall and the acorns, as the calls of the birds grow silent, she will tell him about all the things that happened while he was away, and all the things she plans for the coming spring. And the apple seeds will germinate in the earth of Pomona’s grove while Vertumnus sleeps in her arms, and she will be content.