COME THIS FAR
by Ed Davis
Approaching the pine forest, I feel my stomach tighten. Listening hard, I hear nothing, although crows followed me, squawking to raise the dead, as soon as I started up the bank from Glenora Creek. Silence means someone is here. But I’ve become impulsive since the funeral, and I stalk on into my forest cloister, stumbling over the pines’ exposed roots.
A tiny woman, a girl really, wearing a bright yellow windbreaker sits on the seesaw log, where Mike used to bounce me high, making me laugh till I gasped. Her spiky black hair and thick, round glasses make this twenty-something look so eager I nearly retreat. It’s so hard to tell strangers I’m a widow and receive their terrible sympathy, which always feels like judgment. Why are you alive and Mike dead?
“Oh, hi,” she says, looking up as I walk into the sanctuary defined by the walls of evergreens. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
But her almost whispered words stop me like the sight of feathers and blood in the middle of the trail.
I stop, turn and look at her. Eyes red-rimmed, bottom lip quivering, she has needy written all over her. I consider gliding on by as if I haven’t heard, but decide I can’t.
“It’ll get better someday,” I say, telling her the lie I tell myself.
She stares for a moment before saying very softly, “Did you ever feel like killing yourself in public?”
“As a matter of fact . . . ” I begin, then catch myself. “But I hope you’re not thinking—”
“Oh, no. I’m too big a coward. But my fiancée killed himself here a year ago—not here, but . . . up there.” She gestures over her shoulder. “He shot himself behind the statue of that guy who was a famous politician or something.”
I nod. I’d read about it. Before I moved to Shawnee Springs, Mike and I subscribed to the local weekly even though we’d lived thirty miles away, commuting to the Ohio village every weekend and holiday. I’d overheard Springers talking about it but shut them out, not wanting to know exactly where it happened, believing it would pollute my sacred wood. Now it has.
“I’m Ruth.” I offer my hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Serenity.” Her hand is soft and warm.
“After we got engaged,” she says, eager to have my attention, “I thought we were happy. Brian seemed to want the baby.”
“And how is your child doing?”
“I decided to give him up, after Brian . . .” She pauses, appears to shake something off her shoulders I can’t see. “But they love him, the Andersons. It’s an open adoption. I can see him most anytime I want.”
“And do you?” I say it gently; I hope, nonjudgmentally.
She looks away. “I did at first, but . . . seeing him with them—don’t get me wrong: the Andersons are sweet, sweet people and never did a thing to make me feel like I’d done anything wrong.”
I sit down next to her. Her tragedy trumps mine. Plus, she’s touched a nerve. Mike was 68, after all—ten years older than me. Which was one of the reasons he never wanted kids. Without looking at me, she continues.
“It was the way they’d look at me sometimes. I’d be holding James—they agreed to keep the name we gave him, although I couldn’t insist he be called Jamey, after Brian’s brother who was killed in Afghanistan. Anyway, I’d be holding James, drinking him in, getting as much as I could of him, knowing I had only an hour or so—then I’d look up and they’d both be staring with these big owl eyes of—”
“Pity?” I finish for her.
Serenity is studying the rust-needled floor of my sanctuary. “No, more like protection. They knew I could hurt them. And while they weren’t worried about me taking James back, their eyes said, ‘What did you do to make your child’s father want to kill himself?’”
“Let’s go up.” I hardly recognize my voice. When I stand and extend my hand, she cringes away, looking at me as if I’d come to make her claim the corpse. Something stirs up the crows, and they begin screeching as if eagles are eating their young. “It may be unconsciously why you came this far today.”
She squints hard, eyes narrowed. “Are you a therapist?”
“Not today.” Reaching out, I touch her arm. “You got this far by yourself. We can go the rest of the way together.” I try to smile. “Sort of a pilgrimage.”
“Huh uh. Not today.”
Rule number one: Don’t bully the client. But she’s not a client—and I’m not a therapist. Not anymore.
“Look, Serenity,” I say, “I lost my husband about a month after you lost your fiancée. Complications following a quadruple by-pass. The Horace Mann statue was our favorite spot—after the pine forest. It’ll be good for us both to go up there together.”
I extend my hand, shocked when she lets me raise her up.
Above the pine forest, we hike through hardwoods in silence. April’s rain has them fully-leaved here in the second week of May; the smell of chlorophyll is intoxicating. Part of me suspects what I’m doing— What’s your motive, the therapeutic purpose? (But this isn’t therapy, so I don’t have to answer that.) This is personal; she’s reminded me of my decision not to have children. For a long time I told myself it was Mike; but after our first twenty years I faced the fact that I’d chosen. His reasons—not in this hard world, not given the rough childhood he had, blah blah blah—weren’t mine. I simply couldn’t make myself decide to do it. On his fiftieth birthday, he said he wanted to get a vasectomy. For me, forty was the crossroad, I’d always said. Because I couldn’t say “no, don’t get a vasectomy,” I said yes. Now he’s dead and my uterus was cut out years ago.
Go get your baby, Serenity. But I won’t say it. I won’t be as mean to her as Maria Gomez-Lewis was to me.
Maria was the office manager at One Day House, and she never smiled. Everyone was scared of her, me included. I’d only been working at the clinic a month or two when, in line behind Maria at the copier one day, she explained the pecking order among professional staff, with former addicts at the top. When I asked her how long it would take for me to prove myself as an addiction counselor, she waved a two-inch-long lilac fingernail. “Never.” She glared at me like I was an imbecile. “Welcome to the wonderful world of substance abuse counseling.”
So when she cornered me again at the copier almost a year after Mike died, I steeled myself.
“You’re finally an addict, Ruth. Congratulations.”
“What? I may have an occasional glass of wine but—”
“Not booze. Grief. You got to move on, honey.”
I slammed the copier closed, smashed my files together and got out of there. How long do you get? I wanted to yell. Was six months the limit? Then you’d better slap on a happy face and never mention your dearly departed ever again?
I quit the clinic two weeks after the copier incident and moved to the Springs. With Mike’s insurance, I didn’t need to work. I hadn’t had much success talking people out of their drugs of choice, anyway. It depressed me that three out of four of our clients failed to salvage their lives beyond six months. Now I’d been told that I was one of them. I didn’t believe her.
Addicted to grief? Nah. Regret, sure. But I wasn’t about to tell Maria that while I missed Mike like hell, I was missing lost opportunity even more. During our first couple of decades together, my Yes couldn’t stand up to his No without my full heart and mind behind it. Now I know half a heart would’ve been enough—what the hell had been wrong with me? They say grief is mostly anger at the one who’s gone, but how can I be mad at Mike? I made my own bed; now I can’t sleep in it. If I get four hours a night, it’s a miracle.
“Can we go back now?” Serenity suggests.
I grasp her hand, and we hurry on.
Leaving the woods’ sheltering canopy, we cross the road and enter the field that’s mowed a couple of times each summer. It’s nearly noon, and the scent of clover is thick in the air. I always wondered why the trustees of Burk College built the statue honoring their founder out in the middle of a field, miles away from campus. But they’d always been major tree-huggers, Mike had said, since some wealthy landowner gave them a thousand acres in honor of their first president. My husband was more tolerant than I of the college’s—and the village’s—“indigenous liberalism,” as he called it. Oh, Mike, why’d you have to die without leaving an heir?
Within ten yards of the statue, Serenity stops, staring in panic at the old barrister in his dull green-corroded robes high on his pedestal. “Tawk! Tawk!” the crows call. The black stalkers have followed us from forest to field. When I cut my eyes up toward the mild-featured metal man, she follows my gaze. He beckons with his right hand, fingers unfurling, welcoming.
“I can’t go,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
“Take my hand.”
I force my face into what has passed for a smile since the funeral. She lets me pull her forward, and soon we stand close enough to read the inscription. Mike had once leapt up on the pedestal, splayed fingers over his desiccated heart and recited Horace Mann’s famous phrase in mock-baritone: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity!” What macho-liberal crap, I’d always thought. (Now I wonder if it could pertain to my mistake?) She turns toward me, letting go of my hand.
“Why wasn’t Brian ashamed to die? How could he do it, Ruth, knowing who he was leaving behind—not me, but our son? He was so selfish.”
But suicide doesn’t seem nearly as selfish as what I’ve done: aborted my children with silence.
I meet her eyes. “He must’ve been in a lot of pain.”
Serenity’s face has changed again, from anger to fright. “Don’t you see he was mocking me? Killing himself here was murdering what we had together.”
Despite the heat, I shiver. “But even if that were his intent, he failed. James is alive. And the Andersons. And you.”
She seems to consider what I’ve said—me, the failed counselor and mother.
“I don’t know,” she whispers. “I just don’t know . . .”
Right. You can’t know. But I don’t say it. I consider re-taking her hand, but I don’t. Amazingly, she follows me behind the statue. At the edge of the woods, I see the entrance to the path that winds down to a creek where I once saw a sunning snake on a concrete abutment while Mike and I made love on the bank.
Turning toward the girl, I start to say something, then stop myself. She’s staring at the ground where Brian’s lifeless body must’ve lain. It’s a holy moment. I might flatter myself that it’s me and my therapeutic skills that got her here, were it not for an office manager’s blunt honesty. Gazing to where Serenity is looking, I notice tiny blue flowers weaving themselves among the clover.
“Come on,” I whisper, taking her hand and guiding her up a couple of crumbling concrete steps to the statue’s base. Bending, I make a stirrup of my hands. She doesn’t hesitate, and when I boost her up, she’s as light as the child she is. There’s hardly any space at all to stand, but clinging to the statue, she lowers her hand and I clamber up beside her. It’s higher than I thought it would be, and I feel Mike’s presence, somewhere to my left. (If I don’t look, he can’t be there.)
“What do you see, Ruth?”
Her voice is a puff of air beside my ear. Shielding my eyes, I gaze beyond the field toward the forest from which we came, where we’ll soon be re-tracing our steps. The crows, quiet now, have settled into nearby poplars. When we finish whatever we’re doing here, will we head to Higher Grounds for tea? Will this girl and I stay in touch? A car passes distantly on the road, a child’s face pressed to the glass. Will I meet James, will I hold him while Serenity laughs at something the Andersons have said? Can he have too many moms? A breeze ripples the high grass, coming toward us in waves.
“I see,” I say, “infinite possibility.”
Nothing moves. The sentinel birds watch as if this is what they’d intended all along. When I incline my head slightly, her eyes meet mine. Surely she must think me insane. But then she grins.
“You got us this far, Ruth. What now?”
Keeping my left hand on the statue for balance, I grasp her fingers with my right and squeeze.
“On your mark, get set. . . ”
Holding tightly, we leap into empty air.
West Virginia native Ed Davis recently retired from teaching writing full-time at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. He has also taught both fiction and poetry at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the novels I Was So Much Older Then (Disc-Us Books, 2001); The Measure of Everything (Plain View Press, 2005); and The Psalms of Israel Jones (West Virginia University Press 2014), which won the Hackney Award for an unpublished novel in 2010.
Many of his stories and poems have appeared in anthologies and journals such as: Evansville Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, Appalachian Heritage. Four poetry chapbooks have been released as well as a full-length collection, Time of the Light (Main Street Rag Press, 2013). He lives with his wife in the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he bikes, hikes and blogs mainly on literary topics. Please visit him at www.davised.com.