Fiction, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009
Daniel carries a single white stone in the right front pocket of his jeans. It’s there today, the day his wife, Sharon, drowns under thirty feet of snow and water. Later, Daniel imagines her walking their lab, Bob, over the iced curves of the pond. Sometimes Bob bolts away to snare a sparrow and Sharon dashes across the surface to grab him. Other times she simply slips, crashes through ice. However he imagines it, the facts won’t change: while he drives home from the warehouse, watching the winter sunset color cumulonimbus in his rearview, Sharon’s blood slows to the pulse of snow.
Every night, even in winter, Sharon walks their golden lab, Bob, through the woods behind their house. They walk about a half mile to the large pond, which usually freezes over completely by January, and stay there a bit before turning back. Bob crunches his paws through millions of frozen hexagons, and Sharon gazes at trees. She likes the way they look in the untouched snow—gray and leafless, their branches caging stars. Sometimes, if she has her stone with her and the snow is stiff enough, she sets it on the forest floor. Closing her eyes, she hears the Atlantic and sees Tiree sky. Opening them, she sees a white beach bearing a single dark gift. She claims it back. Plants it in her mouth. Tastes its newfound cold. She tongues it in circles as she walks Bob back, sucking on sand and snow—mixing memories underneath dead limbs and a winter sky.
water & light
Often, Daniel dreams Sharon’s body suspended in waterlight. She’s naked, her jeans and jacket dissolved by water or memory. Daniel knows, of course, that this was not the state of her body when the divers found it. Then, it was crumpled in mud on the shifting pond floor, bloated blue and turgid. Yet, he feels something authentic in the vision, like something beyond body can be captured and dreamt in an eternity of water and light.
The sky seems closer to the ground on Tiree than it does in her home in upstate New York. The stars seem like static fireflies, colorless and clear. Some nights, after tending the pub, Sharon steps onto the beach where the tide has pulled out for the night and spins while looking upward. Once dizzied by the galactic gyroscope, she crashes into wet sand. Sitting there, the universe swirling within and without, she recites the names of the townships on Tiree and renames the heavens.
Daniel knows the way that pond reflects the nothingness of night sky. He used to fish in it at night after Sharon went to sleep. As his silvery lure flashed through water, he’d witness pitch ripples smooth the surface. Maybe, he thinks, the night sky is just a waterless pond, able to reflect what’s below; maybe it could mirror the water pond and hold in the darkness of the sky what the whiteness of water once held in winter.
The chalk clouds still above the Atlantic, and seven-year-old Sharon bends over to examine a shine in the machair. Two stones in the sand—one black and rough with deep gray etchings, one white and smooth with shadowy bruises under its stone skin. Sharon scoops them into her palm, glances back toward the grassland beyond the beach. Her parents laugh in muted twilight light. She hopes they don’t see her. The stones are her secret. The island’s gift to her. She peeks at her treasure. A sun strand breaks through silent sky, flames the sand grains in her palm into stars, the stones into nebulae and moon.
Sharon didn’t have her stone with her when she went walking Bob that night. She left that galaxy in the front pocket of her purse, where she usually kept it. This makes it easy for Daniel. Once the police drag Sharon’s body out of the pond, once the funeral is over, once the countless phone calls from concerned friends and family cease—Daniel sits quietly on their bed and rummages through his dead wife’s black purse. He knows where the stone is and pulls it out of its pocket without looking. He holds it. It’s the first time he’s ever held her stone before. It feels unnaturally cold in his palm, like its etchings are streaming balls of ice swimming aimlessly through the coldness of space.
Sharon’s parents bring her here—to a tiny, treeless island off the coast of Scotland—so she can experience a place where there are more sheep than people and once the lights go out, there’s no light. It’s a place where she doesn’t feel lonely alone. While the morning sun still touches the ocean, Sharon leaves the small cottage her parents rent and walks the wind-curved grass. Once, she chances across a sheep herd grazing the green-black hills, hundreds of dirt-flecked clouds floating through grassland. The sight touches her, makes her feel a part of the island. It’s as though the sheep are her own thoughts, misting the hills of her future.
Daniel tries to make Sharon’s stone into a pendant—thin streams of silver curve around a stone black galaxy and loop through a black leather necklace. He wants to feel the space between stars on his chest.
At sixteen, Sharon decides that she will not go to college right away after high school. She’ll take a year off and go to Europe. When she speaks about this to others, they always talk about the Parthenon or the Louvre and how much Sharon will love the old cities, their history and culture. While they talk, Sharon thinks of sheep and stones and stars in the sand.
It’s almost a year to the day, and Daniel can’t sleep. He gets out of bed and crosses the cold floor to the dresser, where he keeps the stones. Daniel cups them in his left fist. Hard. As if trying to convince their atoms to dance in such a way that stone becomes water and the two wash to one. But no, stone is stone and death is death and it is still snowing outside . . . and in.
Seven-year-old Sharon hates playing with dolls. They feel too plastic, too fake. Bill, her imaginary dog, is more fun. She watches him leap over branches in the woods behind her house to chase dragonflies or swat his front paws at mosquitoes. Bill catches a sparrow and drops it at Sharon’s feet. It’s dead, its black-brown feathers feathered with mud and blood. Not wanting to decline Bill’s present, Sharon cups her hands together to make a nest, nuzzles the bird inside. She sits on a rock. She waits. The sparrow’s mate might come looking.
Daniel works in a warehouse, boxing stuffed animals and toys, prepping them to ship. Normally, the days are slow. Time tars the warehouse floor. But today, Daniel boxes up time, ships it out. In this time outside of time, Daniel falls into plastic polar bear eyes into a world where furry albino bats cloud the sky and pillow-soft sharks haunt the deep.
The summer before she travels to Tiree, Sharon buys a map of the island off the internet. She posts it on her bedroom wall, and every night she reads the names of the places on the map— Scarinish, Barrapol, Gott Bay, Kilkenneth, Crossapol, Ceann a’ Mhara, Balephuil—like she’s saying a prayer.
the perfect moment
Before Sharon drowned, Daniel used to hunt the woods behind their house. On his days off from the warehouse, he’d get up around 4:30 and walk to his favorite spot: an old birch tree on the north side of the pond. There he’d wait in the pre-dawn dark and listen to leaves whisper on the early morning breeze. Sometimes he came home with a turkey or a doe, sometimes not. After Sharon’s death, he thinks that hunting will make him feel better, that it will help him stay close to her. Two days after the funeral, Daniel gets up a little after 4:30, walks to the old birch, and waits. Before the sun clears half of the horizon, a single doe breaches the branches on the other side of the pond. The animal either doesn’t sense Daniel or doesn’t consider him a threat. It strolls straight to the edge of the pond and licks at the frozen surface. Daniel imagines the moment perfectly: he raises his rifle and lines its barrel with the deer’s frame; he fires and feels the bullet fly through steel and sunlight to hit the doe behind her ear; he sees the shell disappear into fur; he sees a subtle mist rise from the wound as the doe surrenders to snow. This all would have happened in a fraction of a second, but Daniel’s heart folds in upon itself, followed by rib and lung. He drops his gun, eyes the doe in the soft morning light. He notices how the doe’s eyes close slightly with pleasure every time her pink tongue darts out from black lips to taste last night’s snow. Taking his cue from the animal, Daniel steps toward the pond, scrapes a small handful of snow from the iced surface. Slowly, he raises his hand to his face and licks the white from his palm, hoping to taste the dead.