With eyes closed, I listen to the steady flow of the creek as the icy water goes bubbling over my ankles. The sun bears down hot on my naked shoulders. I am a magnet standing between two opposing polarities, yet something about the sensations steady me. I sway in unison with the willow branches caught in the cool breeze.
A dog’s bark suddenly snaps me from my reverie. People are coming. They’re coming to intrude in my perfect quiescence. I open my eyes and sigh, trudging out of the stream and onto the rocky bank.
The balding man smiles as he speaks, pulling taught on his dog’s leash. I catch a glint of gold in his mouth, replacing one of his incisors. I am drawn inexplicably to the shining gold and stare without thinking. The man closes his mouth and looks away uncomfortably, calling to his Labrador as he turns away. I open my mouth to apologize, but stop myself. What reason do I have to be sorry? If anything I’m the idiot, gravitating towards a shiny thing like a fish chasing a lure. Although, I did forget to say, “Good morning,” back.
As I hook my feet through my sandals and begin the walk back to my truck, my thoughts never leave his gold tooth. I know I’ve stared at them before when I met people, but in a different way. Ever since my wife passed away I’ve been feeling connections where they wouldn’t otherwise be: connections of the weirdest sort; to those who have also lost something. No, a tooth is not comparable to a spouse, but before I would have judged him for his gold tooth. Now, I know how he must feel. My staring like a fool is the equivalent of a long-lost friend asking how my wife, Leslie, is doing. “She’s dead,” is all I can say, while I hope to God they don’t ask what happened.
The modern response would be to say that she died of cancer, but that wasn’t the case. Cancer would have been a cleaner death than what she suffered. I just couldn’t let her go on like she did. She needed to die… but maybe she didn’t. The doubt haunts me like a specter every night I sleep on my side of the bed, opening the chasm of the opposite side that she once filled. She would sprawl out and toss and turn as though tormented every night, kicking her way across the entirety of the bed. When one stares at death too long, they fall into a trance that takes them to a precipice where they dangle their toes curiously over the edge and tread carefully along the brink of hopelessness and reality.
I skip over the large rocks piled along the banks of the stream, working my way through blackberry brambles and dangling branches. Leslie and I would come here often in the summer to pick berries and make pies. They were never any good, but we pretended like they were. It’s weird how one gets so hung up on little things like berry picking, even when it never turns out how one wants it to. We just kept picking and baking, never touching more than a slice after agreeing on how delicious they were, picking the seeds like rocks from our teeth as we ate.
There comes a Robin’s song from nearby branches and I stop short on a fallen tree trunk to listen. Thankfully he doesn’t stop, even though I am only a few feet from him. He just goes on singing. His is a bliss I wish I could touch only for a moment; the bliss of absolute innocence. To hang on a branch and sing and fly away would be heavenly about now. But I’m too heavy to fly, borne down by a guilt that comes up like bile in my throat. Suddenly cold, I see Leslie’s face rise white as a sheet from the toilet she’d been spilling everything out into. I rock on the log and almost fall, but catch myself as the Robin takes flight before me and shakes the image from my mind.
Did I kill her? Sometimes I wish there would have been an investigation. I wish that I could have stood before a judge and poured everything out before him, begging him to judge me; tell me, am I innocent? But I know that a judge is only a human being bound to the laws our society has written. This guilt stretches beyond civilized convention. Society will never know in a thousand years how to handle the situation I was in. I laugh when I meet people who talk as though they have all the answers. At one point I was like them, but now… now the precipice has made it impossible to look back and believe with conviction. The only conviction I have lies in the Robin’s song that pours sweet and innocent over this wild forest and over the running creek.
As the Robin takes flight, I continue bounding over the rocks and overturned logs, making my way slowly back to my truck. Turning towards the rising bank to my left to begin climbing back up to the road, I feel as though I can breathe easier now. This place was our only sanctuary, but now it has been turned into a constant reminder of what we used to have. People say to remember the good times when someone departs, but hardly any come to mind. The only one I can think of is berry picking, yet the brambles tear into me like I have infantile skin again; tender and permeable.
The walk up the steep rise is difficult, but I finally reach the top and look back down over the running water and confining trees surrounding. I don’t think I can ever return to this place now. Its beauty has become overshadowed by Leslie’s lacking presence. I see her face in every inch of the beautiful scene below. I see her crawling away from the toilet towards me on her hands and knees, orange and white vomit dripping from her chin.
“Please, baby. Please call someone, get someone.”
I couldn’t break my gaze away from her dull eyes. When we first met in college they were bright and driven, like a bird’s. She saw only horizons and looked beyond the immediate always. After three miscarriages we stopped trying and the brightness in her eyes began to fade along with the color in her skin. She became pale and thin, like a walking cadaver. This was the second time she tried to kill herself by taking too many pain pills. The first time she threw it all up before it could hit her and told me she decided she wanted to live. That was two years before this night.
“Call who?” I asked, numb and dazed.
“Call 911 you dumbass.”
“I’m dying, Dmitri. I’m dying, call an ambulance.”
I reached for my cellphone, but I didn’t get beyond the unlocking button. I just held it there, stiff and void, as she began dry heaving on the carpet. I set the phone down and went to her on the floor. She fell over on her side and I curled up beside her, holding her hand. I’ll never forget how hard she clenched my fingers, muttering through dry heaves for me to call an ambulance. But I couldn’t.
“I love you, Leslie,” I whispered into her ear.
She muttered again for an ambulance and suddenly went limp in my arms. Did I kill my wife? Every night I wish for someone to tell me frankly, yes or no. But no one will. No one can. Not even a judge could look me in the eyes and say that I have committed a crime against our laws.
I close my eyes and spread my arms out as wide as I can. The cool breeze catches me and I remember again the Robin’s song, sung clear and innocent through the forest. Only the Robin knows if what I did was wrong or not. Only he can judge me now.