Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
The house smelled stale after Robert and Kathy returned from the hospital as if it had never been lived in and the past was merely a figment of their imagination. They decided to take a small vacation to get away from the truth that followed them even though it was impossible. It was like trying to run from a memory or your own heart. They hoped, at least, to have the chance to think about something other than time. Time used to seem so big, measured in lifetimes, but now it was measured in weeks, days and seconds. It was now an unbearable stretch of wasteland. Kathy didn’t call anyone because she could not think of what to say or how to describe it. Instead she cleaned the house. Pregnancy books called it nesting, but now it was just movement, to feel her body work and lift, nothing more. Before, her mind and imagination were wrapped up in thoughts of a baby and pregnancy. The thoughts swaddled and warmed her, buying the clothes, cribs, diapers; but now that she had gone through all the tests and the doctor looked at her with regretful eyes, she knew what he said was absolute truth. Kathy had wanted a baby for so long and had been trying, but she couldn’t conceive. Now she couldn’t imagine anything that would take her dreams and thoughts away. She wanted, just for a moment, to feel three weeks younger. All the hopes and expectations were gone and all that swelled in her belly was cancer and death.
Kathy wanted to leave. She wanted to get away from the house, the people around her, and the rundown city. She and Robert decided to go back to the Head of the Meadow on the coast, where they had spent a weekend camping when they were first together. Kathy wanted to avoid the awkward, sad gaze of everyone she knew who looked at her with guilt and fear and the awful silence of not knowing what to say. The Head of the Meadow was secluded in a pine forest near the ocean and both felt that some time away from everything and everyone would be necessary. Mostly, she wanted to feel the earth, the sea and the soft touch of pine needles on the forest floor.
Robert took a leave of absence from work. It was autumn and she packed anything that they would need for the week. She retrieved the four-person tent from storage and a portable propane grill, pots, pans, one cooler for food and one cooler for beer and wine. She even packed their swimsuits in case they felt young and crazy enough to take quick dip in the icy, northern water. There were no existing reservations at the camp for that week, and the woman on the phone said Robert and Kathy would be the campground’s last customers before it shut down for the winter.
It was a long, quiet drive north on I-84 and then east on the turnpike toward the Atlantic that curved out in one long, arching arm. The single-lane highway led them to the tip of the peninsula, narrowing as it went north, and the houses and shopping centers disappeared and the trees grew thick to gather up the surrounding miles of countryside. They drove through the afternoon and into the evening. Kathy could smell the air with its tinge of salt. It was still light when they turned right down a small, unmarked street that led to the campground. Robert didn’t drive to the campground right away but instead drove further down to the ocean.
He parked the car at the edge of the sand dunes and walked between the sandy hills to the beach. The tide was high and the water was gray and cold, frothing at the lip as it lapped onto the empty beach. Kathy and Robert both kicked off their shoes to walk onto the damp, cold sand and over toward the empty lifeguard stands. The cold on Kathy’s feet sent shivers up her body, prickling her flesh.
They sat down on the sand and Kathy smiled. Robert kissed her and said, “Everything will be all right, you’ll see.”
She smiled again and watched as he playfully climbed up the guard station tower and extended his hand down to her. She took it and he pulled her up with him. They sat for a long time watching the water from their post, high over the sand.
“This water flows north,” he said. “It travels up to the arctic and breaks up the ice.”
Kathy had seen the arctic ice once. She had flown to Germany to spend a college semester in Berlin, and on the trip back she was able to look out the window and down at the massive ice floes with the streams of water running between them, great white islands. The floes looked large enough to land the plane on, and she imagined how cold the water was that ran between the islands of ice. Kathy kissed Robert again and he pretended to be a lifeguard, young and strong, jokingly scanning the horizon and inviting her back to headquarters to make out in the freshwater showers.
They checked in to the campgrounds and were allowed to take their pick of sites. Kathy found a flat of land tucked away in the pines near the sandy path to the beach. The trees reminded her of an ancient forest, whose trunks twisted and knotted upward in strange, distorted angles, all competing to reach the sunlight. Only the tops of the trees were alive with green pine needles; all below was sparse, dead and twisted. Kathy remembered that when she was younger during her first trip here with Robert, she had thought the trees were enchanting, and had wanted to sketch them in her journal. Upon driving into the camp and seeing the woods, she immediately leapt from their old Chevy and danced like a child across the campsite. She had startled Robert when she jumped from the vehicle and he just shook his head and said, “You’re crazy, you know that?”
The trees were like an eternity of fossilized remains and she felt a distant urge to walk off deep into the forest and join them: to root herself in the ground and struggle upwards, bending and twisting until she reached sunlight. She wanted the memories of the dawn of time when the land was empty and there was only the cold ocean, the earth, and sky.
After setting up the tent, they turned off the lamps, spread one sleeping bag on the air mattress and one as a blanket. Both tired from the drive, Robert had a beer and fell asleep; Kathy couldn’t sleep and her insides were hurting.
She lay in the tent clutching her swollen belly. The doctors had said that the pain would probably worsen in the coming weeks, but it wasn’t the pain or the thought of pain that bothered her most—it was the swollen bulge that it made in her stomach. She always had a flat, tight stomach, but now she felt disfigured and oafish. Robert told her that, of course, she was still beautiful, but she knew that the bulging was horrible to look at and that the irrational fear that it was somehow contagious kept people from looking at the rest of her body. They would just stare intently at her eyes when they would speak to her, consciously ignoring what they feared and averting their eyes from what now defined her. Who wants to look at the image of cancer, anyway?
Kathy stayed awake through most of the night, and at odd intervals, she would hear what sounded like footsteps in the forest—as if some person was walking with a strange gait around the perimeter of the camp. She stayed quiet, listening for more of the frightening sounds. She heard a branch snap close by and then two more steps, closer this time.
She tried quietly and gently to wake Robert. Then the night was silent for a time. She tried to calm herself. Thinking she was just being silly, still a child with fears of the dark. It was probably just birds or deer.
There was suddenly a clap against the side of the tent, and she jumped with fear, letting out a small yelp. Robert woke immediately.
“There’s someone out there,” she said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“I heard footsteps and then someone banged on the tent.”
Robert quickly retrieved the flashlight and unzipped the door. He looked around for a moment. She heard the footsteps again.
“It’s pine cones,” he said. “The pine cones are falling from the trees when the wind blows. It’s only pine cones.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She began to drift into sleep in the early morning, just as the dark began to give way to the sun. She still heard the pine cones, but now she wasn’t as frightened. The sounds echoed in her mind as she slept. She kept imagining the dark shapes fall and hit the forest floor.
Kathy and Robert spent the next several days walking the sandy paths through the twisted pines trees and dune brush, and then out to the cold shore where they walked up and down the beach in their sweaters and shoes, watching the waves run up against the shore. The sand was very loose and would make its way into their shoes. They would walk anyway and watch the sea ducks dive beneath the surface chasing fish.
“Does this water ever freeze?” she asked. “Ever?”
“No. Not that I can imagine,” he said.
At night Robert would cook on the small propane grill and drink beer and wine and he and Kathy talked about how much they loved being near the ocean and wanted to buy a house on the beach. They always thought that they would buy a house there one day.
Kathy would lie awake during the night, staring up through the tent’s canvas windows, and listen to the pinecones falling from the branches to occasionally jostle the tent until it was all she could hear. When she was too tired, her imagination would run and she would be scared again, both of what was outside the tent and what was inside her. She finally fell asleep in the early morning. The pain was sporadic, but she hoped that the long walks through the woods would help ease the ache. She and Robert would walk for hours, it seemed, and usually say very little. She just liked taking in the whole world, the sea and the trees, taking it all in until it became a part of her.
One day they rented bikes and peddled across the dunes on designated paths until she was too tired to ride anymore. Then they put the bikes down on the beach. She couldn’t make love to him anymore, so they kissed and held each other until it was dark, and then she let go of him and walked down to the water’s edge to let the foam run over her feet. It made her jump at first. The cold was shocking, and her feet ached for a moment. Then they became numb and felt almost warm as the next wave caressed her ankles and then pulled back out to the sea. She looked over the ocean to the horizon where she could see the slight curve of the earth. It stood before her—immortal, immovable and enormous.
Kathy cried one night, listening to the pine cones, feeling the pain inside. Robert woke up and sat up in the tent beside her. He kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“I’m just so scared,” she said. “I’m so scared and so sad all at once. I feel like I can’t take it anymore.”
“Don’t talk like that,” he said. “It sounds like you’re giving up. You can’t give up.”
“It’s not giving up,” she said. “It’s accepting.”
“That’s not you talking,” he said. “That’s not the way you talk. I don’t know what that is, but it’s not you.”
“Shut up,” she said.
He was quiet for a long time. Then he began to tell her everything that he had dreamed of them doing together, and told her that he would not let that dream die. That one day they would own a house on the beach and raise a family. Maybe they had waited for a long time, but they could still have that family. They would spend their weekends and evenings walking the beach and watching the moon rise, just like they were doing now. He talked for what seemed like hours, but still the sound of the pine cones falling resonated in her mind.
She could hear them in the distance. She could hear the ocean like it was her heartbeat in the dead of silence, as it rose and fell onto the cold beach.
Robert talked until she fell asleep, and that night Kathy dreamed she was a fish and could swim all the currents and depths of the ocean, into the coldest recesses and deepest canyons of all the earth.
They sat in the sand one evening in jeans and sweaters.
“I can’t remember, are our wills together or separate?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I can’t remember.”
“They’re separate. We never got around to getting them together.”
She nodded and looked out toward the ocean to the horizon. It was low tide and the ocean seemed to swell up like it was holding back all the water in its big, dark belly. Kathy wanted it to be high tide. She loved it when the water seemed to reach out and touch her.
“It seems like there’s a lot we didn’t get around to,” she said.
“Don’t worry. We will.”
“I had the strangest dream last night,” she said. “I was a fish and I could swim all through the sea, but I kept swimming deeper and deeper till I couldn’t see anymore. Isn‘t that strange?”
“It was only a dream.”
“It felt like more than that. It felt so real. I was a fish.” She seemed elated at the idea.
He looked at her for a moment and shook his head. “It’s like talking to a little kid with you, sometimes.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t feel me tossing and turning.”
“I had quite a bit of wine last night.” He looked back out toward the sea.
She thought for a moment, watching him look out over the horizon. “That’s a good idea. Let’s get some more wine and get drunk. I think that would be fun. Let’s build a fire, too.”
Robert got up and went to the campground store for more wine, and she went to the campsite, gathered stones into a circle and cleared out the brush. Together, they found several sticks for kindling and some old logs. They sat by the fire and drank two bottles of wine until they were laughing and holding onto each other. They fell asleep together in the tent.
Kathy woke to the sound of a pine cone tapping on the tent. She was tired and thirsty. She listened for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for another pinecone to drop. She was still a little drunk. Then she heard two fall, one right after the other. They were close, just outside the tent. Kathy listened longer until she could hear the ocean. The sea’s low distant rumble was just enough so it could only be heard at night, when the world was still. Kathy wanted to see it again at high tide. Her middle was hurting again and the pain felt amplified.
She decided to go for a walk to the beach and quietly pulled on her jeans and sweater. Robert was asleep and snoring as he always did when he drank, and she slipped out of the tent and into the dark.
The half-moon shed very little light across the dunes. Kathy found her way to the entrance of the sandy path that led to the beach. She felt like she could walk these woods blindfolded and find the ocean by sound and smell. Like a blind man could find his way around his own house, she could find her way to Head of the Meadow beach where she and Robert had been walking and holding hands for the past week.
She glided through the ancient trees and over the soft, dead pine needles carpeting the ground, over the asphalt of the bike path, the dunes and dune shrubs and over the sandy beach whose pebbles and shells nipped at her feet. Everything was wet with dew and cold, and she could see the black water of the ocean with its white, foamy lips. The waves rose and fell like a great dark mouth that spoke silently to her.
Kathy sat and watched the water for a while and could feel the steady strong wind pushing them toward her. A sharp pain passed through her body, into every nerve and molecule, straight into her brain. She hated the pain. She was sure she could have handled the pain of childbirth. She would have loved the pain, but this was different. This was something awful being born inside her and she didn’t want it anymore.
She fell asleep for a time on the sand, and she awoke at the edge of the Atlantic’s monstrous black belly. The ocean heaved at the shoreline and her own belly heaved back, sending the pain through her body. The water rushed over her ankles and in the pitch dark, she glanced up both shorelines and let the soothing, warm numbness set in over her feet. There was only death in her womb now, she thought, but she could fight it. She could kill it first. She wouldn’t give up, just like Robert had said. She would fight it and she would kill it on her own. She stripped her clothes off slowly and the cold air touched her whole body. She shivered from the cold, naked rush and her breasts and skin tightened in the cold air.
Kathy waded into the dark water slowly, until her body seized from the shock and her breath was taken from her. It was as if she couldn’t move, the cold paralyzing her. She tried to cry out for a moment for Robert, but she couldn’t speak or scream; she could only gasp. He was far away; he would never hear her. Then, as each consecutive swell passed through, the dull warmth set in around her and suddenly her body was gone, the ocean had stripped it away—her arms, her legs, her disease, and now there was only her lone consciousness in the cold, empty sea. She tilted her head back and floated, letting the waves rock her gently, her hair fanning out around her head. She floated effortlessly, as if she were flying.
Everything was silent and dark and there was nothing but the deep blackness of the sky. Kathy closed her eyes. Her body was lifted and guided outward by the swells and she dreamt of ice floes in the arctic drifting mysteriously, dancing with each other, gently touching and letting go. She could see the blue and white ice caps of the bergs, and the Head of the Meadow empty and frozen in the snow, the gray waters gently lapping at its edge. She could hear the rush of the tide and feel the pull of the currents, and behind it all, the faint, distant sounds of children playing in the surf.