This is one of those quick short stories that grew out of a piece of music I cobbled together many years ago (and as soon as I figure out how to upload the audio file I will). I think music often tells a story like this much better than words, but for now I think this might suffice.
A Walk by the Sea
Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind doth move
Love’s Secret William Blake
He had felt this heart’s storm coming for so long he failed to pay heed to the meaning of his fear. In the end, he knew, he had failed to understand the terms of their contract, the bargain they had struck, all rendered meaningless by time. For years now, her hand in his had been a bittersweet thing – yet nothing now was as it had been. The sound of her voice this morning had – left him quiet, wary. He came to their kitchen and turned away from memories spread out on the table, his appetite for such wanderings at an end. His love was, if not dead, dying. He had killed it, just as surely as she had killed him.
He heard the screen-door slam shut after his gathering footsteps, heard her despair take flight and drift away on errant sea breezes. He cut across his overgrown lawn, making for the trail he had cut years ago, the trail that led down to the sea. To the trail that had been cut, he could see now, for just this moment in time.
He stopped at a white skinned birch and looked up at it’s narrowing branches, at it’s autumn finery now long spent, waiting for the next storm for an end. He reached out and placed his hand on the tree, feeling it’s strength, it’s sorrow through the coolness of the tree’s eternal return. He turned and reached out to the house on the hill, to the amber-hued grief so casually concealed behind lace-curtained shadows. He looked at the weathered, gray shingles, so at home in this landscape, worn out and cold – like his heart, he knew.
Nothing. He felt nothing beside the burning in his arm, and he wondered why. Why, after so many years love could be reduced to such a wretched, withered thing. His wife, his friend, the mother of all that had gone wrong with time, the womb of his every hope and dream. A thing to be pitied, now, in this autumn’s faded glow.
He turned to his trail, turned to face the seas ahead. A gathering storm, wind slicing through trees. They sway to life’s eternal rhythm and he watches as a dry leaf give up it’s hold on life and falls to the wind’s careless embrace, and he feels a breathless kinship for a moment – as it flutters away.
He can smell the sea, if faintly, beyond the faint echoes of a fireplace casting smoke to the sky. The first fires of coming winter. Coming once again to bring memories of faraway time for another visit, for one more look back at his life, and the idea causes him to turn once again from his house, their home, because he has seen her pacing in the kitchen and he wonders how, because that shouldn’t be possible. There is a suitcase by the door, waiting, and he feels decisions not yet made beating the air with vulturine patience.
He shakes his head, looks at gray clouds gathering overhead as he resumes his way to the sea. Through a deeper wood now, shadows cast in blue ahead and lost, with their arms all around him. He hears a cracking branch and smiles; he thinks death would be a fitting end to this day, but he knows there are no easy answers waiting in these shadows. No, he has another trail to walk.
He remembered her, as she was – in the beginning. Another autumn evening, walking under storm-tossed skies much like these. Blue shadows along tree lined streets, deep autumn in Cambridge – walking up Holyoke Street from her dorm to the music lab amidst a sea of swirling leaves. His senior year. Her thesis loomed. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. Stacks of notes caught by a gust, joining leaves in a flurry down that windswept, cobbled lane, frantic searching, how he’d joined her rounding up notes before they took wing on the next gust. How she cried, how he had helped her pick up the pieces, even then.
The afternoon of a fawn. Indeed, his entire life, the entire score, had been little more than foreshadowing. Such a gentle piece, sun-warmed and infinite. So like her smile. So unlike what had come of it. He remembered watching her play later that winter, viola or piano, it didn’t matter. Profound genius. That was what they said of her, that was what he knew when he felt her play. She was gone, only a few chance sightings after that breezy autumn afternoon, until one snowy evening somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. On Holyoke Street once again, walking in shifting drifts, he saw she was just ahead – walking his way, in the amber light of a streetlight. Snow falling on her shoulders, brief flight caught in domes of light. He could see her lips, feel her smile even then.
And then she stopped when she drew near, and she looked at him, snowflakes on her brow.
“I’ve seen you,” she said slowly, almost – was it uneasily?
“In my dreams. I’ve seen you, in my dreams.”
Her eyes were far-away, this side of her dreams, like she had just come from sleep, and he didn’t know what to say to the expression in those blue pools.
“You were walking, holding a deer. A fawn, I think…and then you slipped away from us.”
And as suddenly she started to slip away.
“Excuse me? I’m sorry, but you don’t walk up to someone and tell them you’ve been dreaming about them, and then just – leave.”
“You helped me that day, in the wind, when my papers blew away. Do you remember?”
“Of course. You were doing research, on Debussy.”
“That’s right,” she said, smiling. Such an unbelievable smile, so unexpected and, he suspected, so very rarely seen. “Have you had dinner yet?”
“No, not yet,” he remembered saying as he took in her eyes, and her lips. The gentle sweep of them, the warmth within meeting frost, the vapor that formed and was lost. “Would you like to…?
“Someplace quiet. I’d like to go someplace quiet,” she said slowly, “someplace I can watch your eyes, and not be distracted.”
“Yes. I’ve thought about them, since that day. A fireplace. I want to see your eyes, in firelight.”
He hadn’t known why, but he took her hand in his and they walked over to a place near the Yard, across from the Coop, an old pub with a red brick fireplace in the back, it’s hearth blackened with time, too many winters. They drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, and when their waitress looked annoyed, they ordered dinner and ignored the food when it came. They talked and talked until lights went out, then hand in hand he walked her back to Holyoke Street to her dorm. The drifts had been very deep then, the night bitter cold, yet he could not have cared less.
They walked into the courtyard and she pulled out her key, opened the door; they looked at one another in the light of a bare light, unsure but sure what would happen next. She pulled him inside her world and they snuck up to her room, and they both missed classes the next morning, but by then everything had been decided. She wanted him to come home with her for Christmas; she wanted, she said, for him to know everything.
They sat side-by-side, Logan to LAX in a shiny new 707, and they talked all the way to California. Her kid brother picked them up and drove them north on Sepulveda to Sunset Boulevard, and from there to Foothill Road, to a garage behind a hideously large house. There was a suite above the garage, he remembered, and he’d slept there that first time, but what he remembered most was the backyard, and the absence of snow.
There was a pool set in an emerald field, not acres of white so cold it hurt, a pool with water so clear it had astonished him. Avocado trees stood sentinel beside one side of the house, and he saw squirrels running along their limbs, pausing to eat before jumping to another limb, to another avocado. Orange trees, and lemon too, and birds of paradise basking under a benign afternoon sun. A lawn that looked like a putting green, little flagstone patios scattered about, secluded islands lost in a sea only Hollywood could fathom. Palm trees, high and swaying in the breeze lined the house’s perimeter and dotted the backyard, and he watched, dazzled, as a coconut fell to the ground and bounced into the pool.
Her mother sat in the shade of one of the avocado trees, her tanned legs stretched out for miles. She was watching him, measuring his every move behind opaque walls of glass perched on her nose. She watched as her daughter let go his hand and dashed to her side, and he walked up to this woman as she took her sunglasses off.
Of course he recognized her. There wasn’t a man in the world who dared not, and he was sure she approved of his reaction, of the surprise and approval she saw on his face.
Introductions were made, smiles and knowing glances passed between them. He remembered looking at her eyes as he said something inanely banal, and he’d watched that smile again, the same lips he’d admired on the silver screen. She smiled again at an awkward complement – his unease clear for all to see, yet the woman was gracious – she did her best to make him feel at home. Perhaps she even licked her lips.
Would they mind going to Burbank, she asked, as she had to tape a segment with Johnny Carson at five-thirty. They were expected for dinner at The Bistro, joining her husband there, hopefully, he remembered her saying that word cautiously. He rode with them in the limousine the studio had sent, and watched the taping as if he had disappeared down a rabbit hole – and taken a wrong turn.
Had he – taken a wrong turn?
He could smell the sea now – and the wind. Was it stronger? Hard to tell in trees so deep, wasn’t it?
Their wedding, not a year later at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Friends and roommates arrived at the hotel the night before, his parents, too, but they disappeared under the glare of so many imposingly strange people. He remembered Hank, his best friend from distant childhood looking around at the beautiful people and wanting to run far away, but he met his wife that night too, for the very first time. He moved to LA, and nearly died in a car accident a few years later.
So the worm turns.
The trail he’d cut now danced between an almost dry brook and a mass of house-sized granite boulders, a few pine here and there but still mainly somber white birch his only companions. There’d been bear here – perhaps a hundred years ago – but deer and squirrel owned this forest now. Benign…these woods were benign. Devoid of danger, like his life – until this day. He had money enough to live a thousand years without worry, yet perhaps that was the problem. Nothing to overcome now, except another tomorrow.
He could hear that first song of her’s now, the one she’d penned while still in high school. The song, a love song of course. Who had she loved back then? Who inspired those words? Lust and longing, so common, yet so bitter and fierce. She had formed a group with four friends, four other girls right out of college, before their divorce. That first album went platinum with her anthem front and center, while their second went nowhere – like their marriage. She fell into an abyss, psychedelics lit the way ahead and one day he was served with papers, his third year of medical school.
And that night, after he’d moved his things to a small apartment in Westwood, her mother had come over, distraught. Her mother, in a red 450SL, the top off, her legs so goddamn glorious it hurt. She was distraught about her daughter, she said, afraid this shadow of herself was making all the same mistakes she had. A startling admission. She stayed the night as it turned out, and while that wasn’t the only time the memory of those first sweet hours had remained a bright spot in his life. No one else had ever come close, even if he never understood the reason why.
But she called him once, a few years later, to tell him her daughter, his ex-wife, was now in rehab and wanted to see him. He was a resident then, in oncology at a clinic near San Diego, and though he’d forgotten all the glitz and glamour of those years, even though he’d even forgotten the swirling leaves on Holyoke Street – it all came back in a rush, memories leaving him cold – and alone. He drove up the next weekend, picked her up on the way to the hospital.
Nothing had changed, not even her legs.
He heard the sea now, angry – disturbed by the coming storm. Waves breaking on rocks, the deep rumble an animate thing, alive, fearsome, waiting in the distance. The wind more insistent now, clawing through the wood, impossible to ignore as he came to a final clearing. There was green grass here, a few windblown pines standing like gnarled old gnomes, guarding the cliff – and the rocks below – from careless souls.
He came to a favorite rock, one with a view of the water and the woods lining the shore as far as the eye could see. He leaned on his rock, felt his heart beating and he checked his pulse, felt his carotid. Too high, he sighed. Too high…and thready.
He saw her in the dayroom, or so someone called it, and she was in a wheelchair, and he wondered what had happened to put her there.
Anti-psychotics, her physician told him. She had suffered a break. Schizophrenia, but she was medication compliant, she wanted to fight the disease. He went to her, held her as she cried. As she apologized time and time again, as she breathed her desire for him, her desire to be with him always. He didn’t know what to do, what to say, but he told her that he loved her because that was his truth, and that he always would. He felt her resolve grow under the shape of his words, and when he told her he would come back next week the strength he saw in her eyes filled him with joy.
Her mother, too, had expressed support in the only way she knew how, in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was older now, her career on the wane but still very much the desirable leading lady. She had held on to him that night with a fierceness that had left him certain, yet when she whispered in his ear that she loved him his heart had tumbled, because he knew he loved her too. Impossible not too, he told himself, when he looked into those eyes.
When he spoke those words she fell apart in his arms. She’d played the part a thousand times, yet still the moment had all felt so real and good. He loved this woman, he loved her daughter, and it was all so impossible. This palm-lined dream life, this make believe world where anything was possible – and nothing was real.
He returned to the hospital every Sunday afternoon until she was released, and when he moved to Boston, when he took a fellowship at Mass Gen, she followed a few weeks later. He felt safe again in Boston, safely away from Beverly Hills and all the baggage he’d accumulated there. They remarried a few weeks after her return, and he became all too aware that she was anything but well. She was clean, however, and he helped her stay the course with her meds, but he well knew that would be a life long struggle. She knew it, too.
They lived in a high-rise condo along the banks of the Charles; their living room looked across the water to the college where they’d met, now more than ten years distant, and he remembered even then thinking he could only wonder at the changes they’d faced together – so far.
He looked out at the sea, at writhing white-caps and wind-driven spume, then he looked down at his hands, the wrinkles and spots so foreign, yet so inevitable. All those hands had done, the life they’d allowed him to live, all so taken for granted – once. He knew the nature of death better than most; he had, after all was said and done, after he held his father while his cancer eaten body passed, battled death all his life, and even though he understood why most people took life for granted, he knew too that somewhere between that first gasping cry and the last night’s dream there was a moment when every human grasps the finite. God thrives in the moment, even as reason pales.
Her mother was in his office one morning, just after he’d completed rounds, and she had a file folder in her lap. She wanted a second opinion, or so she said, but he knew better. She was alone now, her last leering husband gone and she’d visited once, his love for her still intact, on the face of things anyway. But the physical attraction was absent on that first visit, and there had been times he wondered why. Still, when he took them to dinner he appreciated her beauty, the timelessness of her smile, the gestures she made a minor symphony of elegance. There was a quality to the woman that had vanished from the earth over the years. A serenity that came, he guessed, from perfecting her craft. It had been almost five years since she’d been in a film, and that had been a supporting role in a disaster epic; her characterization had been best and most charitably described as a valedictory of sorts. And now?
He saw that in her eyes that morning in his office, felt it when he looked up from her file, tears in both their eyes. He asked her what she wanted to do.
“I want to be here, with both of you,” she said, and he remembered the pleading look in her eyes. “I want you to take care of me.”
“I always wanted to take care of you,” he told her, and the honesty of those words hit them both.
And yet, so he did. He watched over her as she came back into their lives, he managed her descent as she fell back to starlight. One night he was called in, and he slipped out of the house in silence and lay with her as she passed, holding her hand, looking her in the eye, telling her that he would always cherish her, that he would take care of her daughter until the end of time. When she left him he cried for hours, then signed her paperwork and walked away in silence.
There was no silence now, only the wind. He watched as a ship at sea struggled against the storm, making for Portland perhaps, or Boston, and he stood and walked along his trail, looking at the ship and the waves. The wind in his hair felt wild, untamed, and the force of it buffeted his soul as he thought about the years after her death.
His wife had started playing the piano again, but something was different now. Her memory was a game of chance, the biochemical sequencing of the flow of memory altered by her disease. Her conscious mind commanded one note, while memory served up another, so she had to relearn all she’d learned – and lost. Then one evening he’d come home to Chopin’s Nocturnes and her smile was an impossibly radiant thing to behold. They moved to a house he had built north of the city, a large room overlooking the river below held her piano and she lived there, there in that room with her music for company.
He remembered the first time it happened, speaking in old French to the voices in her head. She was begging, pleading not to be hit again, then her tormentors were cutting her with knives and she was sobbing on the floor, holding her bloody hands up for all of them to see. He remembered going to her, holding her, feeling her pull away, her balled-up fists flailing away, warding him off until he gave up and called a friend, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s. She came out and sedated his wife, then they drove her into the city. He carried her home – a year and a half later – and life resumed, if on a more tentative, cautious note, and as such the years reeled by. The voices never left her completely, and the medications she took tore away at her ability to play the piano, yet still she struggled on.
There’s had become a separate peace, a solitary place where he helped her take her meds before he went into the city to fight the good fight, and then he would force himself into his car for the drive home, where he would see to her medications and help her into bed. The new medications made it easy for her to gain weight, and she struggled with the results until the last vestiges of their desire faded. Soon, physicians added insulin to her daily regimen, then beta blockers.
With that thought he turned from the trail and walked to the edge of the cliff and he looked down at the sea, at the colossal waves breaking below, the spray lifting into the air. blowing upward to the sky. He stepped back from the torrent, wiped salt from his eyes as he continued to look out to sea, at the ship pushing against mountainous swells.
Would these storms never end, he asked the wind. Might his winds and waves ever grow still?
She had good days, though rarely, and the voices came for her at odd times. In the middle of the night. Sitting in the car, looking out the window. She would be sitting quietly at a Sunday brunch with friends, then scream out as her tormentors returned, warding off blows with her arms to the astonishment of onlookers. In time there were fewer and fewer brunches, and only a few good friends left to share them with, and the weight of her fear overcame him some days.
He saw a coppery glow behind the clouds – the sun setting, he knew instinctively, and he remembered the girl’s hair. Red, a coppery red. A nurse. She had appeared one morning in the exam room, helping with patient histories, taking vitals and drawing blood. She was gorgeous, he remembered, and she had a heart of gold, though he soon understood that too. She was from Maine, Winter Harbor, Maine, from a family of boat builders and he knew on some level they were destined to come together. He wasn’t all that surprised when it happened, if only because he knew he was all too human. Still, in time only bitterness remained.
Because he had thought this girl different. She was an empath, she’d felt his pain, and when he told her about his wife her first instinct had been to help. She asked to help out on weekends, help him with her meds, help him take care of her, and he’d welcomed that if only because he was blind to more concealed forms of ambition.
The three of them drove north to downeast Maine one summer weekend, and on that trip they found the land they would call their own. His wife walked down to the sea, through a tidy birch forest to the cliffs where she’d looked over the waves below, and she’d proclaimed her love for him then and there, an eternal love time would never rip asunder. He saw his wife looking at this nurse, wondering, perhaps, when her universe would be pulled from her grasp and their love find an inglorious end.
He found the spot he wanted their new home to rest upon, and he engaged an architect to draw up plans. His nurse approved, of course, and did all she could to show her approval, but the act was wearing thin by then. The house took shape the next summer, and they drove up on weekends, just the two of them, his wife now his only companion. There was a huge, bow-shaped piano room that looked out over the sea, and a new Steinway resided on those mighty oak floors – pure, unfiltered light pouring through two story windows. She went right to the piano every time she walked in the door, and she played the random notes her disease commanded, the notes of a symphony only she could understand.
When he was down to working two days a week he put their house just north of the city on the market, and he found a small condo near the hospital to call his own after they moved to Maine, ostensibly forever. His first night alone, she, the nurse, came over. She stayed for breakfast, he remembered, then he drove the five hours north to their new house on the coast. Lost, in clouds of confusion.
He found her on the kitchen floor, sitting in feces, warding off blows that he knew now would never stop. He helped her shower then drove her back to the city, and there they would remain for another year. Through another round of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants, until she was lucid and – just – ambulatory. This time, he knew, the drive north would be one way.
He retired, and though he was obligated to teach at the medical school for the next five years he wasn’t sure how he would pull that off. He wasn’t sure he wanted to anymore. There were mornings he wasn’t sure he wanted to wake up, not ever, not again, so he busied himself cutting a trail to the sea, walking with her to the cliffs and eating picnic lunches under the summer sun. She professed a desire to paint and he guided her along that path; what emerged were howling portraits of madness and despair that left him breathless at the thought anyone might see them.
Of course when her teacher saw her work she loved them and arranged a showing; all of them sold in one weekend and his wife set about producing even darker sketches of pain – until she couldn’t see her way clear of the images in her mind anymore. Her hallucinations had been given a new lease on life in the imagery she conjured, yet too soon they came and consumed her once again. Another six months in Boston, another summer shot to hell.
He started teaching that fall, second year students, their clear bright eyes an antidote to the madness waiting at home. He learned he enjoyed teaching by feeling his way through his interactions with young minds, and he occasionally enjoyed casual dalliances with the red headed nurse as well, because he found himself once again wanting more out of life than his wife’s howling madness.
He was sitting, alone, in his condo overlooking the Charles one night, wondering if he should sell the new house and move back to the city, put his wife into an assisted living facility – then quietly divorce her. Perhaps start a new life, have a kid, maybe two. He might be able to pull that off, he thought, then he considered what kind of father he would be. Seventy years old, pushing a three year old in a stroller? Pushing his mid-eighties, if he lived that long, at that child’s high school graduation?
No, he said to himself as he laughed out loud, that was folly. He had a wife. He was married to his soulmate and that was that, his cross to…what? No, she had never been that kind of burden; he had, when all was said and done, loved her from the start. More than that, he had always cherished her smile, and he would never walk away from all that truly meant to him.
Or would he?
The last few years at the house in Maine had been trying, she was becoming more violent, more withdrawn. Dementia and Alzheimer’s were mentioned with more frequency these days, long term inpatient care loomed. Or so he was told.
Perhaps. Was that his future?
But with time had come acceptance. He would take care of her – until he couldn’t. He had been content with that decision, too.
Until this morning.
The violence he’d experienced was beyond anything his imagination had ever seen. The withering verbal assault, the cold fury in her eyes. He had, in her madness, become her tormentor – then she had attacked him. First with her fists, then with a knife, cutting the sleeve of his jacket, or so he thought. When she’d seen blood running down his arm she had screamed in feral agony, fallen to the floor and curled up in a fetal ball. He had dressed his wound with Betadine and Steri-strips, then called her psychiatrist in Boston.
She was a danger now, the woman told him, to herself and others, and that was the end of the line. The time had come.
He looked out the windows as he listened to those words, at the storm gathering along the far horizon, at the lightning he saw playing in the distance, and he knew it was time to take a walk by the sea. He carried her to their bed, made sure she had all her meds on board and redressed his wound, then walked through the kitchen and out into the wind.
He heard thunder now, and lightning, still far away but fast closing in.
He looked at the sea one last time and turned for the woods, for home. He passed the stunted pines, walked into blue-shadowed wood – feeling watched now. He felt fear for the first time in decades, real, visceral fear, the kind he used to feel when he was a kid and he walked into the attic, alone.
He stopped, listened. There, in a thick clump of brush beside the brook, a restrained thrashing in dry grass, then silence.
Silence, then a cry. A cry for help.
He walked through tall grass towards the sound, then he stopped again, listening.
Another cry. Pain. Silence.
A few more steps, then…
A fawn in the grass, alone, starving. A broken leg? A coyote perhaps, or a fisher? The animal lifted it’s head, looked at him then fell away into the fear that had called.
“Oh my God,” he heard himself say, “what’s happened to you?” He approached slowly now, taking off his jacket as he did, until he was beside the animal. He reached out, stroked her head gently, slowly, then he laid his jacket over her shivering body. He continued to stroke her face, her neck, until he thought she might let him pick her up.
She was terrified, wanted to run but all that was behind her now. Her will to live had blown away, on the breeze perhaps. He picked her up, amazed and alarmed at how light she was, how dreadfully vulnerable life was. He carried her like a baby, her chest on his, her face on his shoulder, and he could hear her frantic breath on his neck, her heart hammering against his.
He looked down into her massive eyes as he spoke to her. “It’s alright,” he told her, “I’ve got you. You’re going to be alright now.” He picked up his trail, felt the first drops of rain hit his shoulders, and he could see the contours of his roof through the trees ahead.
The crack of thunder overhead caught him off-guard, the lightning not far to his right now close enough to be of some worry, so he picked up his pace, pushed past the few overhanging branches that blocked his way as he closed on the meadow under his home.
The pressure was gentle but insistent, in the center of his chest, the heaviness in his left arm suddenly more than enough to get his attention. He stopped, took a deep breath as he looked into her eyes again, though he could see she was alright now, that fear had left.
He pushed on. The last of the trees, the grass in need of mowing. The kitchen door, wide open, lights on inside.
She’s playing. He can hear Chopin coming from her room as he stumbled into the kitchen, sweating now, the feeling of pressure in his chest impossible to comprehend.
He feels the floor reaching out for him and all he can think about is shielding her from his fall.
He is on his side, holding her close to his chest as Debussy fills his consciousness; she is playing again, he says to the fawn, and while she cannot hear them on the kitchen floor he is filled with a kind of satisfaction.
The next crushing wave leaves him breathless and pale, and he looks into the fawn’s eyes, at life’s lingering helplessness and fear. He rubs her face once again as his eyes grow distant and cool, and at last he smiles, when he feels her raspy tongue on his face, and he thinks of a pure love as he slips away on the wind.
(C)2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw
That was haunting and lovely. Thank you for sharing it.
Thanks for reading. Haunting, yes, very much so.
Well done, but, interestingly, I’m grateful that it wasn’t longer. I’m overwhelmed by the melancholy.
Any longer and I’d have never finished.