Posted by: macsubhine | September 16, 2013

The Stillness

Edward pushed back a sheet of sweaty hair from his forehead and leaned against a small tree that grew alongside the ascending rock-bordered path. He removed his black suit jacket and let it hang from one of the thin branches as he drew in hot breaths. He continued climbing. After ten minutes the path stopped against a shelf that rose before him in tight, green-shaded ridges. Carefully, he pushed his toes into spots where wind and rain had carved out natural footholds and pulled himself up by grasping at the places where the moss grew the strongest. His black tie swung limply from left to right with each movement. When he reached the top, salty streams of moisture running into his eyes and webbing his vision. The sky above, still light blue in most areas, had taken on a heightened brightness, a weighted sharpness; its last deep inhalation before the long exhale began.

He thought of his father’s warning about the dangers of the forest at night. As he walked, Edward fingered the hammer of the revolver resting in his pocket. He wondered what a shot would sound like echoing through the trees and out across the valley, unseen, beyond them.  

The path wove its way through a pine grove, which narrowed and formed a sort of bridge between two sunken pits, their centers marked by the gnarled hand-like growths of dead trees. He felt his pocket vibrate and, pushing a sweaty hand into his pocket, drew a thin white smartphone. With a flick of his fingertip its screen lit up the trail. In that moment he realized how little of the day there was left – the daylight was hardly reaching the forest floor and, looking above, he noticed that there was a deeper blueness implied in the last vestiges of the sun-lit sky. The wrinkles in the clouds were illuminated as they made their slow progress.

He read the words on the screen without thinking of their meaning. Come home, they said, small dark etchings on a plane of green light. Pocketing the phone Edward continued along the path as it curved to the right and climbed in rocky, root-gnarled steps. The sweat on his face was gone and a dry coolness had spread through his bones. Around him, the trees were thinning, rising like lone figures with arms stretched out to grasp the last splashes of daylight. The first starts began opening their eyes.

Edward reached the summit and stood still and quiet while the air moved through his greying hair. He had been here many times before, like the day when he and Margaret had watched thunderstorms crawl up the side of a mountain with lightning-strike legs, the day when the power was lost just before sundown and the two of them slept there under the stars, the valley below hushed by the stark luminescence of moonlight, and the day when she had asked him to carry her up the mountain path so she could let the warm summer wind caress her bald head while the rain fell in thick droplets that splashed away like blossoming flowers from her face.

He looked up to where a pair of golden eagles circled within an unseen current. Whether they were following something with their sharp eyes or merely riding the air’s undulations was a mystery to him. He wondered if perhaps they, too, had come here to watch the sun take its leave.

A deck of clouds hung over the horizon, yet the sun’s brilliance still carved a rough circle as it pushed its way into the unseen sky half a world away. Red-orange strands reached out as if they were grasping for every breath of air in sight. He thought of what his wife had once said; that the day is most true at its birth and at its death.

The last gasp of sunlight, just a pinprick of gold squeezed between two distant peaks, shivered before flickering out. He thought of why he was there, thought of the hanging weight in his pocket that sunk toward the earth He took out the revolver and let the barrel hang loosely over the front of his hand, rocking it gently with his finger curled around the cold metal of the trigger guard. 

The idea first came after the hollow beep permeating his wife’s hospital room had been silenced. For hours he sat in the stillness that fogged the room, staring at the wires and pipes that wound their way into the conduits behind the walls. Wheels squealed by like newborn babes crying for comfort while the sirens of ambulances howled their way in through the window from the concrete driveway. 

He lifted the revolver and aimed it out toward the valley. The leather grip, which earlier had burned from the hot moisture of his hand while he drove, was now stiff between his tensed fingers. Edward raised the gunsight out against the deepening blue of the sky before turning his head to where the sun had gone. The stars were staring back and he wondered if she could see him through their luster.

Warm tears spread themselves like arms across the plane of his vision. He broke away from the gunsight to watch the night’s first true winds weave their way down through the tree line. Raising his eyes, he watched the last few veins of blue light bleed out of the sky.

Edward lowered the gun. He pushed the hammer forward and it snapped against the frame.

I’m going home, he heard himself say. The path carried him downward and he felt for roots with like a child descending stairs. He remembered leaving the hill where she was buried, how it began gently as grass and patches of dirt forgotten by a shovel but then escalated into a deep green slope that wouldn’t let him keep a footing. There was a flash of color in his mind; the dark sheen of Margaret’s hair as it looked inside the warm darkness of bedsheets, within the prismatic glow of church light and beneath the cold shadow of polished mahogany. The pine grove was around him as he walked and imagined and tears dried slowly on his cheeks. 

It was a rough exhalation, guttural with a forcefulness of muscle, that made him turn. The black bear’s form rose from the earth like a rippling boulder, its thick eyes staring out through the darkness. Edward reached for his gun, lifting it to eye level and watching the bear’s dark forehead hover beyond the thin metal wedge of the sight. The muscles in his index finger curled around the trigger.

The bear didn’t move. Edward knew the gun’s caliber was only powerful enough to slow its advance yet he was determined to take the shot. Perhaps if he acted early enough he could blind it, send the bear into a tree while he made his way to the rock outcropping. If he got ahead, he thought, surely he could jump down and hide until the bear lost his scent. He would remain still, pressed up against the rock, still as the earth after a shovel ceases digging, still as an organ’s throat when its last song has died away in the church’s dusty corners. 

The bear remained still and Edward felt sweat sprouting from his forehead. He wondered how many shots he could get off, how thick the bear’s skin was and whether he should aim for the brain or the eyes or the heart. These thoughts passed through his mind in frantic messages amidst the grove’s shadowed stillness and the bear watched, its eyes speared with starlight.

Edward felt something breathing on him–a wet nose pressed against the small hairs on his leg. A few tiny snuffs wafted up from the ground, and he broke his sight contact to look down and see a tiny black bear cub staring up at him. A shameless curiosity pooled in its eyes, mouth hung open and breathing in the cold night air. After a few moments it began ambling clumsily away from him, paws crunching the leaves with newly grown claws. The adult black bear lowered its head, brushing its long face against the cub’s dark fur. Then, with one last grunt, the mother turned and strode off into the shadows while her child followed behind in quick, jumping steps. 

 After they were gone he opened the cylinder of the revolver and began to empty the chamber. As he did this, the low, rippling legato of a mourning dove’s song fell from the branches above him. The cartridges gathered in a pile of dull bronze beneath the cool pallor of the stars.

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