Beautiful and devastating.
The visitor’s father had fancied himself a woodsman, used that term, like he had a job shooting pheasant and quail for the lord of the manor, rather than building brush fires that hadn’t really needed to be built. A deceased pet turtle was immolated in one of them, the shell flaking apart like a plate that had one too many go-rounds in the microwave. “It’s not like it was a dog,” his father said by way of explanation, which was both a fair point and a difficult one.
He had never told anyone what had been his father’s final words. He was a boy. People might not have believed him. But that wasn’t why. He thought if he tried quite hard he could be someone who did and said everything he said and did for a purpose. He’d be rare and he’d be useful. People could be helped by him. And that would help push him away from pain, like the pain he was about to experience, which he expected, even if he couldn’t have foreseen the weight. There is pain that must be tactile for you to know it exists. You couldn’t imagine it. You had to feel it.
“Your mother will help you,” his father had said. First the final airing of the tried and true life advice, the hokey joke about tact being kept intact—he sounded drunk, actually, but he wasn’t drunk—and then what was tantamount to a prediction. His father might have added, But don’t bet the house. They’d barely gotten him upstairs to the ICU. The adults were with doctors in a conference. “Next steps” was the subject, not last steps, the dwindling pitter-patter of concluding footfalls. But when a last step comes, it does so like someone taking two stairs at a time.
He felt like he could have told the man with the vest this, and the man would have understood, though he did not know why. He even sensed that the man might already have an inkling of what had occurred. Those times in woods like these. Alone. Was he a reminder of the caved-in happiness to a surviving parent? Had she survived? What’s survival anyway? Had he? Was he a failure? Did he not live up to that which he was supposed to live up to? His mother was so young. He didn’t look at her as young then. Forty-five. So young. In reality. When people break they harden. Or else the opposite, becoming a nerve incarnate, which he had imagined as something jelly-like, the human currant. They can’t touch you. And you can’t touch them. The solidity is gone either way.
“Do you want to color with me?” he’d ask his mother, bringing an art book she had bought him into her new room, down the hall from her old room, which was now filled with boxes of old books and what he figured were the cartons containing his baseball card collection and the stories he tried to write beginning in third grade, when his father helped him start his own magazine for the neighborhood. He had a full twenty-three subscribers. “You’re a much better artist than I am,” she said, which he understood to mean, “be back on your way.”
Before they had kids of their own, his mother had come to live with him and his wife, long prior to anyone bestowing upon her an honorific for the aged in the Golden Goose, in this home that now belonged to this man with the vest with whom he walked. She enjoyed these woods, flabbergasted him one time with an impromptu tutorial, delivered largely to his wife, on the mushrooms you could eat and the ones you couldn’t. He felt like he was overhearing someone else’s conversation, even then, but that was okay.
They came to the subtle gully. Leaves moved across the forest floor down below, which meant that water had infiltrated the declivity.
“That beech tree has probably been here for hundreds of years,” the man said, pointing.
The visitor agreed. “I think that the flooding must bring a kind of nutrients to the roots. It’s about the healthiest looking tree I’ve ever seen.”
“I’ve thought the same thing. That ground is really only dry in late July, early August, if we’re not having that especially humid heat. Those summers when the leaves will fall in early September. Maybe even by mid-August some years.”
“I remember that,” the visitor said.
His wife had been closer to his mother than he had been. They only had a few years together, the three of them. She had unhardened in the new home, her last home, but he had come to believe that a heart is like a body, not just part of a body. A body on a table. A body on a bed. Life exists within the body and then a second later—less than that—the life is gone, and nothing can put the life back in. The body will feel the same to someone else in attendance—for a few minutes, anyway—and it will look the same, but there is nothing on earth, in the solar system, in the universe, that can reinsert the life. A removed heart can be similar, and the space in which it had rested. The thought of his mother’s chest, its geodic nature, the hollow within, the heart without, caused him to turn and look over his shoulder as they walked down the slope to the brook—which he could hear surging—and see once more the beech tree in the subtle gully, see it from another angle, the walking up to, and the walking away from.
He’d sit in the room his mother had died in. His wife had found her one morning when she had brought up the tea. They had tea together most days, the two women. He’d always want to know how it went, as if getting the box score from the night before of a game in which he had a vested interest.
“Marvin,” his wife had said, coming back downstairs to the kitchen right after she had gone up, the quick turnaround but with the exact same rate of progression. He knew immediately. Could still smell the tea from when his wife had first left with it. The tray, the pot, the cups, remained upstairs. She had set them down. “We gave her some good years, at least,” his wife said, as he continued to sit at the table, only now with his head against her stomach. There was a child in there, their first. Their eventual first. He wanted to hear its heartbeat, though he understood that a heartbeat doesn’t go through skin twice.
The brook was no brook anymore. It had widened. Now it was it a full-fledged river, at least technically, he figured, and a trout leapt from it when he reached down and gathered up a fragment of quartz that he tossed into the water with a sidearm motion. There hadn’t really been fish to speak of here in the past. A few blue gills, but mostly crayfish, water striders, an extended family of snapping turtles, and newts. “Well, there she is,” the man with the vest said, and the visitor looked up, scanned the far bank, twelve, fifteen feet away, as if expecting to see some woodland creature with which the man at his side believed he was on some kind of familiar terms.
“Yes, there she is,” the visitor agreed.