It would have been difficult to admit what I was feeling. Easier by far to focus on the hard, Wyoming clay under my heels, or on the bitter wind that beat against me and whipped my long, heavy coat against my calves, but the mourners deserved my attention.
“Beautiful service. So sorry for your loss.” Thank you.
“So sorry. We’ll be praying for you.” Thank you.
“My dear, I’m glad you brought him back home to rest among us.” Thank you.
“So sad. I know you’ll miss him—”
—Miss him. My eyes turned to the burnished casket resting over the draped grave. Once the mourners were gone, the cemetery staff would come forward and lower the casket. After all, as the young priest had so solemnly promised from the graveside, “He was a cherished friend, son, and husband, and our memories of him shall remain untarnished and vivid.”
Vivid. Yes, indeed, our memories of him—
A hand touched my shoulder. “My dear, will you be all right?”
I startled, then turned, thankful that a lash of wind brought tears to my eyes before I glanced up at the face above the black cassock. “Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine, Father. Thank you.”
Despite my preoccupation, I realized how dismissive I sounded, and the good priest deserved better from me. I hastened to fill the silence. “Wonderful eulogy, Father, thank you. I know his mother will take comfort from your kind words.”
“You’re welcome, my dear.” His hands offered warmth to mine, but his eyes? Yes, his eyes registered my slip—the inadvertent confession that the comfort of his eulogy belonged not to me, but to my late husband’s mother.
“Julia-honey!” My grieving mother-in-law picked her way through clumps of brittle grass, stopping long enough to claim the priest’s hands. “Oh, thank you, Father. Thank you so much! Yes, indeed, his last months were so terribly difficult…so hard on me, living so far away from him. At least he’s home again. He was always such a fighter, but this? Oh, he would have loved your sermon, just loved it. He had such a way with words. A lovely way with words . . .”
Yes, indeed, ‘a lovely way with words.’
—No, no. The black dress. It manages to make you look elegant.
—No, no, no! That’s not the way to do it. Here, I’ll write your damned résumé.
—Just bring your proposal with you. No one at the barbecue will mind if you sit inside and work.
“Julia-honey?” His mother fussed her hair back under the stiff, black netting. “We’re going back to the house. Everyone will be there, and Father Murphy is joining us. You really should—”
“Mum, his friends have come to see you, and I have to drive back home. I have only three more days of leave, remember? And it’s a long way to—”
“—to Seattle, yes, yes, I know. Really, you should have flown so you don’t have to drive yourself and I hate to think of you being on the road, particularly now that you’re alone and things happen, you know—”
“—and he certainly wouldn’t have let you drive by yourself, especially at night and especially that far! Oh, dear, and it’s so hard to accept that he is gone. My beloved son. Well, no help for that. At least he’s home again. God giveth and God taketh away, you know. You’ll come back for Christmas, of course. You’re still family, no matter what anyone else says, and you’ll feel better if—”
—if you wear the black dress . . .
—if you let me do it . . .
—if you come back for Christmas . . .
* * *
The drive home was suitably long. I refused to turn on the radio, the new silence too precious to fill with empty words—words of bright-speak disc jockeys, songs of love-sweetly-lost, promises of lifetime guarantees. Besides, the jagged mountains had always felt closer, more ancient and wise and intimate without the sound of human voices. Maybe if I listened closely, the aspens would whisper their broad-rooted secrets to me—
I immediately repressed the thought, but wait . . . there was no need. Old habits die hard, and it no longer mattered that he had never understood the mystic in me. I laughed, suddenly and joyfully, and it startled me. That was the first sound I had made in over three hundred miles. I rolled down my window and sucked the frigid air deep into my lungs.
With the window still open, I headed over the pass, but at the top, a roadside marker caught my attention. Another impulse. I pulled over and stared at the sign. White letters on slate-blue background: Continental Divide. Around me the Douglas firs stood straight and tall and free to the sky, and the aspens shivered gold in the mountain wind, their leaves skittering across the first flurries of snow.
Continental Divide. Behind me, all waters flow east, back to Wyoming, but in front of me, they flow west, onward to the Pacific Ocean. In my rearview mirror, I let the darkening sky hold my gaze for a long moment, but through my windshield, the sun was warm in the western sky. I set my mind toward the Pacific, the radio still silent, and my window still open.
Late the next day, the Cascade Mountains appeared in the distance, their winter shoulders sadly bare, for the year had been dry. Then several hours afterwards, I came over the pass, and spread below me was the skyline of Seattle and the familiar waters of the sound glinting under the late-evening moon. There was time to catch the late ferry, though I dreaded the crossing. As much as I loved to sit on rocky beaches and stare at the million pricks of sunlight on choppy water, seasickness was my bane. This, however, had not prevented him from buying a 30’ cruiser. How long must I wait before selling it now that he was gone?
The ferry was filled with passengers, some subdued from a long day in the city, but others chattering, laughing, celebrating an evening’s entertainment. Always the lovers arm in arm, and always the parents with children asleep against their shoulders. I did not get out of the car, enduring in solitude the pitch and shudder of the ferry caught by the strong crosscurrents of the changing tide. It did not help to count the minutes to the dock, so it was with great relief that I was finally able to nudge my car up the ramp and onto dry land at the beckoning of the ferry worker.
An hour passed and the roads narrowed: four lanes became two, homes receded from the verge, trees laced overhead, and leaves slept in rain-washed ditches. The house was deeply still, and as I kicked off my heels in the entry, I savored the silence. And the lack of his impatient voice.
—Did they sign the contract? Yes, but—
—Did you get your bonus check yet? Yes, maybe we could now—
—We should have children soon. You’re not getting any younger, you know. Yes, I know.
* * *
It is my first morning alone. The house is open, windows and doors unlocked and unlatched and thrown wide to the freezing morning air. The rough cedar deck overlooks the canal, and I watch the sun rise on gentle toes, traveling from the tips of the firs, down through the spread of branches before reaching their night-damp bark. My coffee is warm and darkly fresh, and I cup its warmth between my palms and lean my elbows on the railing. The tide is low, and the gulls forage for shrimp and mussels left in tidal pools by the retreating water.
The air smells green and damp, a bit acrid and yet so very alive. My collie-girl hustles to the shore, head lowered, her gaze intent on the flock before her. I sip my coffee and watch. She poses for a vivid black-and-white moment, then charges. The seagulls scatter and screech in a maelstrom of loose feathers and dropped shells.
I laugh, and my delighted sound carries over the water.
L. McKenna Donovan: Writing addict. Star gazer. Obsessive reader. MFA. Collie aficionado. Plant whisperer.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: At any given time, we actually carry on several conversations besides the immediate auditory one. These other conversations are found in our unvoiced (or even subconscious) thoughts as well as snatches of relevant conversations from our past. This story makes one such ‘tiered conversation’ fully visible.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Pearl S. Buck for her ability to bring foreign cultures into brilliant dimensions; Mary Stewart for her ability to bring settings alive to our senses, especially Greece and England; Aaron Sorkin for dialogue that never disappoints.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Italy. Failing that, my office (in my home).
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: Susan Sarandon
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Within the next two months, I’ll complete my current novel of transnational intrigue set in 1961. Concurrently, I am working on a collection of supporting short stories, which reveal life-informing events from those characters’ early lives—events which are alluded to, but outside the scope of the novel.
My website, To Write Well, is currently under construction with a self-imposed deadline of August 1, 2012 for offering two online writing courses that focus on ‘just the right word’