She did not wake crying, screaming, or flailing against sweat-soaked sheets as she had done for the last 353 mornings. Her body felt rested, charged with an unexpected energy. She sat up in bed, eyes coming into focus, and wondered whether this day would mark the transition others had told her would come, whether moving on was something a mother should ever allow herself to do. In the next room, on the couch where he had woken the last 336 days, he shifted his body and coughed into his pillow, the strain cracking the crusted tears on his cheeks. His stirring no longer troubled her. Another transition, she thought as her legs freed themselves from the dry bedding.
“Time to get up.” She pushed the words toward him, past her lips, waking her voice. Of the 47 plastic hangers that lightly swayed along the iron rod on her side of the closet, only 12 actually held clothes. Most she had given away, too stained by maternal memories. Ironically, directly before her still hung the civilian shirt their son wore the weekend before his deployment: a beige short-sleeved polo with a burgundy collar. She looked past it and pulled down one of her long-sleeved shirts that remained on the shelf above and a worn pair of blue capris from the shelf below.
He lumbered past her into the bathroom, then past her again as he left, wordless but indifferent to her presence as had been his custom these past 11 months. Yet, as they dressed, he watched her, almost reluctantly, and considered whether loving her again was something he should ever allow himself to do.
Words between them had grown stale and terse.
“Today’s the day!” She waited, but he provided no response. “Are you ready?”
“I’m still getting dressed, so no,” he murmured, his lean body sagging on the corner of the bed.
“No, I mean . . . excited. At least somewhat happy about this?”
“That we’re buying that little house you picked out for us on top of a mountain? Maybe. Can we not talk about it right now? I just woke up.”
She did not answer but walked toward the bed, unfolded a pair of ankle socks, and sat down on the opposite corner.
He stood quickly and stepped toward the dresser, allowing his hands to find their own way through the drawers.
Her left sock snagged a toenail, causing her to wince. She stopped to look at him, letting the sock dangle from her foot. He had aged ten years in the last several months, noticeable mostly around his eyes and mouth. Perhaps so had she, but neither carped at the other. Where before she had suffered with him, now, but only within the last few minutes, she found herself beyond him, pitying him.
I must save him, from himself. The unexpected energy surged.
“Where is the picture?” he grumbled.
“He would have wanted this, for us to be happy. I did this for him as much as I did it for us. It will be wonderful, there at the top of the world, surrounded–”
He turned on her, shouting. “Where is the picture?”
“In my top drawer.” The energy emboldened her, but she spoke softly. “I can’t keep looking at him every moment I’m in this room. Not anymore. Starting today.”
He opened the drawer and looked longingly at the 5×7 framed photograph of their son, then closed the drawer.
When the sock slipped past her toenail, she dropped her foot to the floor and stared at the top of the dresser.
It’s time. He’s dead, but I won’t be, she told herself, and walked into the kitchen.
Eventually he joined her, moving his legs slowly, grudgingly, toward the small kitchen table their son had made for them two years ago for their anniversary, but he watched her in his peripheral vision as she stood at the stove, smiling and whispering things to herself.
“I’m having eggs. Do you want eggs?”
“I’ll eat them,” he answered.
She turned and took slow steps toward him until her body almost touched his. He did not move but stared vacuously into the shadow he cast on the tabletop. She reached around him and gently pushed her groin against his, hoping to feel in him a semblance of the now unmistakable energy within her, but there was nothing. She moved her face toward his, but he pulled away and reached for the back of the chair.
“Sit down, then, and I’ll make you some.”
As she cooked, she talked about their new little house, offering ideas she had borrowed from websites and magazines on how they might make it their own. He offered nothing in return but the occasional nod and indifferent grunt.
They finished breakfast quickly but noiselessly–she, in a rapid succession of small bites, each a step closer to commencing the day’s journey; he, in large gulps to be done with it.
She looked at her watch. It would take them almost two hours to reach the realtor, another 30 minutes from there to reach the little house. The signing was at noon.
We could have a late lunch in that little village at the foothills before we drive up the mountain, she thought hopefully.
By midmorning, when they pulled out of the driveway, she considered the picture in her underwear drawer and convinced herself that, when they returned, it would need to lose itself among the others she had already packed away.
He woke to find himself standing in bed, his mouth in the shape of a scream that would not leave his throat, his right fist clinched, his left hand shaking at his side. A soft light streamed through the window, revealing the room and slowly reminding him where he was.
She lay between his legs, still asleep, cocooned in a blanket she had bought from a local vendor during an art festival at the foot of the mountain the day before.
When his hands relaxed and the sound of the scream in his head finally dissipated, he stepped to the floor and tread warily toward the window, in consideration not of her but of the dream that woke him, in which the world outside was burning, leaving only him to inherit the ash. Yet, what lingered as the details quickly vanished from his mind was the body of his son, lying in a scorched field, his eyes wide but staring blindly toward a blood-red sky.
A vast mountainscape sprawled on the other side of the wet glass, almost daring him to find peace in its timeless sublimity, but he merely coughed, scratched his groin, and turned back toward her side of the bed.
The blanket’s pattern was allegedly inspired by a myth originating with an indigenous tribe to which the attractive middle-aged vendor belonged, but he had forgotten the story and now found the array of colors distracting.
“Get up,” he growled. “Sun’s up. I’m up, so you’re up.”
He dressed and ate without her, compelled to continue the project he had started a week after they moved into the small A-frame cabin skirted by ten tree-infested acres.
“I’m heading out. On the trail,” he shouted from the front door. She stirred but returned to her dream that did not involve their son.
Only twelve large flagstone steps separated their front porch from the forest edge. It was August, and since the last box was unpacked in June, he had driven away a family of raccoons, several shrews, and three elks, but nothing yet to deter him from further forging his trail between the trees.
Light had only just reached the mountain but could not yet pierce the dense canopies above him. Armed with a machete and a rake, he cut through thick, interwoven vines and other undergrowth to reveal a narrow path across the forest floor, but his progress was often hindered by summer heat and moments of unwanted reflection that forced him to sit on the exposed earth and either rest or weep. The trail was not her idea; he needed something that was his own, that would permit him long periods of isolation during the day, that would ultimately heal the purulent wound that had forged its own path through his soul for the last year.
He would start with a two-mile loop trail from which more sinuous trails could eventually be branched. The longer he stared into the depths of the forest, the more the path revealed itself.
At noon he brushed off the clinging dirt, weeds, and insects and walked the new clearing back toward the house. When he entered, the fresh smell of cedar surprisingly overwhelmed and invigorated him. It took some time for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light, so he listened for her. The house was cold and quiet. He made his way toward the folding panoramic doors through which he saw her sitting on the back porch, facing the mountainscape.
“Hi! I still can’t get over the fact that this view is ours! How does the trail look?”
“I’m hungry. I’m gonna eat some lunch and keep working on it.” His voice sounded more fatigued than it was. She wanted to offer her help but knew better.
This is his project. He needs it.
She left her view and followed him inside.
“I know! After lunch, how ‘bout we drive down to the village. We could shop some of the antique stores, get some things for the gardens and the house, then maybe head into town from there and see a movie?”
He spread the hummus onto the pita bread and licked the spoon.
“Maybe you can go into town today without me. I’m not at a good stopping place on the trail. We could do a movie this Friday, if you still want.” He tried but failed to find an encouraging tone. He did not want her there.
“Alright. I’ll pick up some things for dinner tonight, if you’re willing to grill.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Just no beef, though.”
“You’re the chef!” She reached past him and pulled a tomato from the crisper. The mountains and the cool morning breeze had made her particularly buoyant, and this vexed him.
He ate in silence, staring at his plate as she recounted every thought about the house, her gardens, their lives together there that the mountains inspired since she had woken.
When he finished, he held his plate and waited for an ample pause between sentences.
“I’m heading back out. Are you about to leave?”
She looked at him, nonplussed by the interruption.
“I think so. I’ll just make a short list for the store, and I may visit that one antique place with the statue out front–the one we went to when we first moved here, remember? Maybe after that I can stop by that little bookstore next to it and pick out something for us to read!”
“Fine.” He pushed the word through.
“Something scary, maybe. Or a mystery?”
He shrugged and turned toward the door as she searched for a pen and paper.
The sun was now higher in the sky and had warmed the air considerably since noon, but he walked to the edge of the forest and waited in the shade of the outermost tree, unseen, for several minutes until the car had fully made its way down the steep, gravel driveway. At that point, he walked east along the curved forest’s edge until he reached his shed.
Sunlight burned into the back of his neck as he hesitated before the door. The key was in his hand, but he first had to block out the unrelenting images of his son lying in a field, surrounded by a world on fire, with his wife standing there, proudly straddling his body, dressed in fatigues, waving a small flag with one hand and saluting their lifeless son with the other.
Her garden shed beneath the back deck contained mostly her tools and assorted bags of fertilizers. His was several yards from the side of the house and stored a few containers of their winter clothes, but mostly his larger outdoor tools. Only he had the key to this shed.
He turned on the light, plugged in the table saw, and cut another set of boards from the pile of assorted wood left behind by the previous owner. Meticulously he continued the project he had begun on their second week in the house–the project he hid from her within the locked shed. He nailed the last board and moved back to admire his handiwork, then stepped over the side and lay within the rectangular box. The dimensions were accurate; it only lacked a lid, the wood for which he would need to buy on a carefully planned trip to town. He sat up and wondered whether to stain it or merely apply polyurethane.
No need for padded lining. He chuckled, amused by the thought of a corpse needing comfort.
The unfinished coffin fit neatly and undetectably between the wall and the winter storage boxes, but he covered it with worn blankets nonetheless.
Having one project near completion galvanized his commitment to the other, so he walked toward the trailhead with renewed purpose and swung violently against resisting vines and weeds, cutting more deeply into the forest than he knew.
Thunder woke her.
Her book lay open on her chest, beneath her hands, and her lamplight was still on. His light was off, but his side of the bed was empty. The book she had bought him lay closed on his nightstand.
It took some time for her eyes to adjust to the darkness beyond, so she listened for him. The house was warm and quiet. She thought to call out but instead placed her socked feet on the floor and shambled nervously toward the window. A small light emanated from within the forest. There was no sound of rain, but it was only a matter of time.
She dressed, pulled the flashlight from her nightstand, and inched her way through the maze of furniture until she reached the front door.
Another peal of thunder and a thread of lightning hurried her along the flagstones and onto the trail, which was wide and smooth, devoid of unwieldy vegetation. Nonetheless, she walked slowly, listening between steps for his sounds.
She found him on his knees, still in his pajamas. The handle of the machete rested against his open left hand. Hanging on the stub of a newly cut branch was the lantern, which revealed his bowed, trembling frame. When she touched his back, his body became still. At the next peal of thunder, he stood up, grabbed the lantern, and walked past her toward the house.
She stood and watched him move beyond the flickering beam of the flashlight before casting it into the darkness behind her. The trail ended where she stood, where he had been kneeling, but the light revealed no reason for his being there in the middle of the night, so she turned it toward the ground and made her way through what now seemed an ever-diminishing tunnel of trees.
The rain made its way through the branches by the time she reached trail’s entrance, and her cardigan was soaked by the time she reached the front door. All the lights in the house were on, but he was face down on the bed, the machete still in his left hand. After turning off all but his lamplight, she took the machete and slid it under her side of the bed.
Morning light flooded through the window. For longer than she anticipated, she lay there with eyes closed, comforted by the lingering energy that let her smile despite the ordeal from a few hours before. Their new home amid the mountains was transforming her, moving her further away from the memories that had sought to hold her responsible.
The rain had stopped, but he and the machete were no longer in the house.
He remembered that the antique store was in the same lot as the hardware store, which sold plywood. The dimensions he needed were on a scrap of paper in his pocket, and he had placed a heavy blanket in the bed of the truck days before in anticipation.
She agreed to begin antiquing without him while he bought another machete from next door. Fortunately, the older of the only two associates there measured and cut the plywood quickly, giving him time return to the truck to cover the lid and stow the machete before she became suspicious.
Afterward they lunched at an outdoor cafe. He thought only of finishing the coffin as she talked at length about the history the antique dealer had told her behind the mid-century wrought iron chairs she bought for the deck. Yet each time he looked at her face, he could not suppress his growing hatred for her.
She wanted him to serve, even used her connections to secure his deployment. She killed him. My God, she killed him.
His left hand tightened, as though gripping the handle of the new machete that lay sheathed beneath the driver’s seat.
“Let’s get back,” he interrupted. “I have a new idea for the trail, and I won’t sleep well tonight without getting some of it done. You drive, though.”
He felt energized, but his eyes were bleary. As she drove and talked to him of ideas for the chairs, he sat in the passenger seat with eyes closed and leaned against the door, no longer pretending to listen but watching as his mind previewed remnants of the nightmare that now seemed to haunt him both night and day, where she saluted their son as his body burned to ashes that blew away before he could cup them in his hands.
He opened his eyes only when he felt the truck ascend their long gravel driveway, but the blurred shape just beyond his window, at the edge of the forest, startled him. Initially, he dismissed the peripheral movement as a shadowed deer responding to the sound of the truck, but it appeared again as she made the last turn.
“What is it? Did you fall asleep?” she laughed as she pressed the break.
Only the head was now visible from behind the thick pine, but it was clearly their son.
“Do you see something?” she asked.
He stared hard at the face, hoping for a response, but it merely dissolved into the woodland.
“No. It . . . I was dreaming . . . woke up too quickly. Just keep driving.”
She laughed again and drove the truck into the space next to her car. As soon as she turned off the engine, he got out and pulled both chairs from the bed, making sure not to disturb the blanket. He placed them on the front porch, returned to retrieve the new machete, and walked straight toward the trail.
The trees began to smell of autumn and teased with red and yellow leaves, which somehow strengthened his swing. For more than an hour he pushed his path in new directions, but always forward. With each step on raw, exposed earth, the haunting images of his son faded, yet his momentum only intensified.
His breathing was steady and his body felt young, but at the second hour a sharp pain pulsed through his left arm and the machete flew from his hand, stabbing the untouched vegetation ahead. He rubbed out the cramp and walked toward the handle that emerged through the reaching vines and weeds. It was only when he pulled it from the ground that he saw the broad patch of flesh beneath the braided vines. He knelt to touch it and recoiled at the warm softness of human skin. Pulling back allowed him perspective. It was too small to be a body, but certainly part of one. The vines were too enmeshed to reveal its shape, so he knelt again and used the machete to carve a circle around it.
What lay there once the severed growth had been pulled away neither horrified nor disgusted him. Rather, with a most delicate touch, he ran his fingers along the detached leg–starting at the heel, over the bulging calf and thigh, to what he expected would be a bloody hole full of mauled bone and muscles but was instead clean, scarless tissue that stretched across the end.
He overturned the leg and moved his whole hand slowly toward the toes, feeling for brokenness but finding none. When he reached the ankle, he pulled away his hand and gasped at the small, fused letters “A” and “V”–his son’s first tattoo.
Everything around him darkened and blurred. He gently lifted the leg closer to his face to smell the skin, to search for childhood scars, and then to hold it tightly against his chest.
Vines, leaves, and weeds seemed to cover everything before him. Holding the leg in his left hand, he crawled through the uncut vegetation, using his right to feel for the other leg, an arm, any other part of his son that this forest had hidden.
She did this! She sent him there to die but they sent her his dead body without telling me, and she scattered him here!
Despite another hour’s search, he found nothing more of his son than what he held. Showing or telling her about his discovery was not an option, yet neither was leaving it in the forest, so he lovingly wrapped the leg in his jacket, carried it to the entrance of the trail, and walked quickly to his shed.
He set the leg on one of the storage boxes and reached down to remove the blankets. A strong smell of pine filled the space. Beneath the small light, the leg appeared even fresher than before and felt warm, as though blood continued to circulate. It was the left leg, so he placed it upright in what would be the bottom right corner of the coffin and restored the blankets. The plywood was still in the bed of his truck; the lid would now need to be his priority.
Tiredness set in, so he hung the machete by the door, turned off the light, and locked the shed behind him.
She was where he expected to find her: sitting in one of the wrought iron chairs she had moved to the back deck, facing the mountains, but her arms hung to her side. The stem of an empty wine glass rested precariously between the fingers of her left hand, while the novel lay just beyond the reach of her right.
From behind she appeared asleep, for which he was grateful; he needed more time to compose himself. Yet the way her body slumped in the chair was peculiar enough to compel him to approach, but slowly.
Her head was slightly tilted, her eyes were closed, and her mouth yawned wide and slanted. He watched her chest rise and fall but then noticed something wrong about how the garish blanket covered her lower half.
Without any regard for waking her, he threw back the blanket and saw what he did not expect to see: her entire left leg was gone.
He woke the next morning, slumped in the chair adjacent to her side of the bed, where she remained alive but unconscious. He sat up and stared blindly into the awful pattern of her blanket, trying to recall the details from the day before.
There had been no blood, and much like the leg he found on the trail, the skin that covered her lower buttock was unblemished.
When he had carried her from the deck to the bedroom, her body limp in his arms, she had no fever, and her breathing was stable. After he had removed her clothes, he decided to keep her undressed so he could examine her on occasion but covered by the blanket so he would not have to see her naked.
He rose from the chair and kneeled by the side of the bed to watch her face. Once her mouth moved quickly, as though forming words she could not speak aloud, but then it relaxed. He lifted her lids and stared into her vacant eyes, but they would not stay open on their own.
A small part of him wondered whether he should stay by her side, perhaps drive her down the mountain and find a hospital, but a more cogent part of him thought of the leg in the shed and the underwood that still hid the remnants of his precious boy, so he left her drooling onto the pillow, her mouth fluttering, and turned off the light behind him.
He remembered leaving the machete in the shed, which reminded him of the plywood that was still covered by the blanket in the bed of his truck.
Lid, then trail, he decided, giving no more thought to her.
The plywood became unwieldy as he carried it slowly toward the shed, which felt farther away than it was. Several times he was forced to drop it and reposition his hands, and each time, before lifting it again, he peered through the trees for segments of flesh.
He traced the rectangle onto the plywood with a pencil and made swift, straight cuts with the saw. He then pulled away the blanket–revealing the leg, which appeared ruddier than before–and laid the board flush against the open box. When the last hinge was firmly attached, he gently opened it and thought he saw the large toe twitch. He closed the lid and quickly covered it with the blanket.
Light and shadow, that’s all. Yet he backed his way out of the shed noiselessly, eyes fixed upon every fold of the coffin-shaped blanket, reaching back for the machete and her old canvas sea bag before turning off the light and locking the door.
When he turned, the house was on his left, immersed in midmorning sun, but he readily succumbed to the gravitational pull of the trailhead to his right and soon found himself on his knees, deep within the foliage just beyond the area he last searched. Despite the softness of both the vegetation and the soil beneath, his hands began to numb and his thoughts drifted.
The first image was of her–amputated and naked beneath the gaudy blanket, but this quickly faded to a deeper memory of himself sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through a stack of bills as she and their son played on the living room floor with an assortment of small, plastic jets, tanks, and armed soldiers, battle-posed in intricately painted camouflage fatigues that were uncannily similar to her own. Their mimicked rattles and booms bridged to a scene from his last nightmare, where their son aimed his gun-shaped hand at a tank that not only fired three missiles through his chest but subsequently flattened his eviscerated body beneath its track. As the tank passed, she rose from its hatch and saluted the pulped corpse of her sole progeny, burning amid the weeds.
This image dissolved when his hand brushed against the fingertips of another. He tore away the thin interlacing vines that enclosed the hand, seized it, and pulled the rest of the arm from the earth that had partially buried it. So overwhelmed by this discovery, he collapsed for a moment and succumbed to a maniacal laughter that continued to echo through the trees even after he stopped. Like the leg, the shoulder was smooth and unblemished, and coiled around the index finger was the tattooed black band that commemorated the day of his enlistment.
He set the right arm atop two low, short branches of the nearest tree and resumed his search, one hand raping the forest floor with the machete, the other probing every curvature, until, just three yards north of the tree, he gripped an ankle.
She was on her side, the energy all but gone. For half an hour, she stared into the pillow, focusing only on stabilizing the erratic breathing that had woken her. She felt a dampness beneath her face and a dull ache in her jaw, but every effort to turn her head failed. Even her body would not respond to her will to rise from the bed. Only the index finger of her left hand could slightly move, but beyond her control.
When she reclaimed the rhythm of her breathing, she called out to him hoarsely, believing that he must have brought her from the deck to the house and that he must be near but merely unaware of her conscious state. She listened but heard only the oscillating fan in the corner behind her. She waited, called again, and listened, but nothing else in the house moved.
Speaking aloud gave her strength, and she found herself able to flex the other four fingers. Soon she could move her wrist, and thereafter bend her arm, which allowed her to push against the mattress until she fell on her back.
She strained her head forward and could see that the blanket she had taken with her to the deck now covered her up to the neck, but she could see nothing beyond her large, shrouded breasts. Her left arm, limp by her side, began to itch, so she moved it inward to rub against her thigh but at once remembered the cause of her sudden unconsciousness on the deck and allowed the fitted sheet to relieve the irritation instead. Then, the thought of her missing leg consumed her.
Why is this happening? Where is he? Why did he leave me here this way?
She screamed his name successively, each time her voice becoming clearer, stronger, yet still he did not respond.
Determined not to succumb to helplessness, she reached over and whisked the blanket from her numbed body to examine the smooth, bloodless wound that remained. For a moment she noted part of the blanket’s pattern reveal itself as one corner folded in the air: three beige spirals arched above a female stick figure holding in each hand one half of a broken spear. In that moment, she also tried to recall what the woman had told her about the blanket’s cultural significance, but when it fell to the floor, she saw what she did not expect to see: both legs and her right arm were gone, replaced by the same partial stub of skin.
She stared into and then beyond the nonexistent space and began to scream–not a cry for her husband, but an excruciating wail that might be heard from a mother who witnesses the violent death of her child. She screamed until she could no longer hear herself; until the image of her disemboweled son disappeared; until her eyes opened to find her husband standing in the doorway, the machete in his hand.
Then everything faded to black.
By noon it stopped raining, and though an oppressive humidity permeated the forest, he worked tirelessly, emboldened by the image of the three limbs symmetrically placed within the coffin. He was now hungry, having no appetite for breakfast, but he felt closer to finding more pieces of his son and dismissed the growls from his stomach.
What will I do if I find his head beneath these vines? What if he opened his eyes and spoke to me? Oh my God! What would I do?
The questions forced him to be still for a moment and listen more closely for the answers that seemed too improbable to consider, but the memory of his son led to the reality of his wife. She was still there, breathing, unconscious, very much alive, and the thought of her made him wince. She was grotesque, and now he would be burdened by her condition, enslaved by her dependency, and this he could not bear to consider.
His body shook with purpose, and his hand–charged with an unexpected energy–cut rapidly through the growth until he gripped the wrist of a left arm within a cluster of wood ferns. He wiped away flecks of dirt near the elbow, where he found what he had hoped: a semi-circular childhood scar from a dog she had brought home from a shelter. The thing had been meant as an early birthday gift–his eleventh–and had shown an initial devotion to their son, even taking to sleeping beside him in his bed, but apparently it had been traumatized by previous owners, for one night, when the boy’s body lurched from a nightmare, the dog bit him, breaking the skin until the blood had soaked his sheets. She had fought to keep the dog, promising to train it, but a few weeks later, when they were not in the house, he put it in his car, drove it deep into the country, and released it.
He moved his finger slowly over the scar until the memory faded, and after wiping the tears with his sleeve, he gently placed the arm in the sea bag. Only a few seconds later, he heard a faint, high-pitched howl echo from somewhere beyond the forest, from the direction of the house, but, undaunted, he returned to his knees, almost gliding across the forest floor.
At the edge of a small clearing he saw a decayed tree, its trisected crown blackened by lighting and its limbs pointing lifelessly toward the ground. He moved toward it feverishly, focusing on its gaping hollow trunk and the barely discernible pile of decomposed leaves therein. When he reached it, he heedlessly thrust his hands into the pile.
Despite his fervor, the warmth of the skin and the tone of the muscles beneath startled him, forcing him to withdraw his hands and fall backward, pulling enough of the leaves with him to reveal his son’s torso.
After he dislodged it from the hollow, he cradled it in his arms and carried it to the sea bag, where he lowered it to the ground and leaned it upright against a tree. His hand trembled as he wiped away the clinging humus and leaves, and he found himself speaking softly, affectionately to it as though this part was the whole of him.
“I’ve got you, son. I’ve got you, and no one will take you from me again.”
With his right arm, he then guided it meticulous into the sea bag, adjacent to the arm, and pulled the drawstring.
Overwhelmed by hunger and emotional exhaustion, he threw the bag over his right shoulder, picked up the machete, walked the cleared path to its entrance, and turned toward the shed. Almost liturgically he placed the pieces in the coffin, joining each smoothed end so that, when he stepped back, he could admire the headless, immaculate body.
“I’ll find you,” he said, referring to the head but addressing the limbs and torso. “Then I’ll have you back.”
He threw the blankets against the door and lowered himself onto them. For hours he let his mind wander through the forest, where he found various unscathed versions of his son among the trees–crawling in diapers or camouflage, engaging invisible monsters or enemies, swinging from branches–until he joined each of them in sleep.
Apart from the early afternoon light that streamed through the panoramic doors, the house was dark and cool, but he made sense of this when he remembered that she was incapacitated in the bedroom.
He ate the hummus and pita bread quietly, thoughtfully, as he stared through the glass and acquired a new appreciation for the mountainscape. For a moment, images from past nightmares tried to distract him, but they now seemed distorted, almost too nondescript to trouble him further, so he readily dismissed them. Yet he could not do the same for the image of her in their bed, incomplete beneath that vile blanket, silently demanding his attention.
For several minutes he stood outside the door, finding no sound beyond that of the oscillating fan, so he entered with a sigh of reluctance and saw what he did not expect to see.
Her head was on its side, facing his nightstand. Her uncovered eye was partially closed, and her mouth silently and rapidly gulped the air, as though she were suffocating. The top of the blanket rested beneath her chin, but the rest lay flat, formless against the bedsheets underneath. He walked to the bed and pulled it back to find that it covered nothing; her body was gone.
Part of him wondered whether he should feel something–grief, pity, horror, or even a semblance of love that had been lost for over a year now.
No emotion came.
He knelt by the bed and looked at the face that no longer resembled her. Devoid of words, he shifted his gaze to the widening pool of saliva that trickled down the pillow and tried to recover an image of her before the death of their son, before she had conditioned him to embrace an unknown war in an unforgiving land. This led him to the early years of their marriage, when life was nothing more than the world they had created together. Even after her discharge and the ensuing depression, the vulnerability in her eyes had emboldened him to adopt a long-neglected but traditional instinct to protect and provide that would inevitably revitalize their intimacy.
Still there came no emotion to charge the only words he found to speak at her.
“You thought you could hide him from me, but I found him. I found him here in this forest. And when I find the last piece of him, I hope the last piece of you will be gone.”
As he stood, he saw her uncovered eye open fully and leer at him. In the moment before he turned to leave, before she resumed her attempts to breathe and with the last of the energy that had sustained her, she curved her mouth into a smile.
He walked the trail briskly, buoyed by a current of cool air that seemed to follow him at every turn. The machete was light in his hand and carved mercilessly through the resisting brambles and shrubs just beyond the hollow tree, but soon he worried that in his haste the blade might gash his son’s head, so he threw it down, stepped deeper into an uncut area, and began trudging in ever-widening circles.
After half an hour, his shin struck a hard object buried beneath a clump of hostas; it rolled forward slightly but remained hidden beneath the leaves. For a moment he merely stood there, looking down but afraid to find what he had hoped was lying just beyond his feet.
So much depends on this! My God, what does all this mean?
Although he anticipated the moment, he found himself unprepared for the full range of emotions that accompanied it. There and then he wanted to cry, to laugh joyfully, to curse and to bless God and her for both taking and returning his son.
Finally, once the intensity waned, he knelt, delicately thread his hands through the flora, and lifted from their care an oblong stubbled head.
Like all the other parts he had found in the forest, the end of the neck was smooth and undamaged, and the rest was covered in specks of dark, rich soil, which he carefully wiped away from the back of the head with a slow, trembling hand–almost reluctant to see the other side.
The longer he held it, the heavier it became, and the fingers of his hand had already begun to feel for recognition, so he turned it toward him. Unshielded by the soil were the rounded brows, bow-shaped lips, and celestial nose that were genetically his own. Had the lids been open, he would have seen her amber eyes.
“Welcome home,” he whispered, “where you’ll stay.”
He nestled the head in the crook of his right arm and gripped the flashlight and machete firmly in his left hand as he walked slowly along the path, thinking of nothing more than the last day he had carried his child in his arms, after they had found him in the middle of the night sleeping at the foot of their bed during a storm. By the time he reached the shed, both the sunlight and the memory faded, and the only sound was the song of a nearby hermit thrush.
After placing the head on the blankets, he lifted the lid and regarded the body, noting how the smooth ends of each part almost touched, as though bonded by thick layers of transparent glue.
The flesh was warm, but he expected this.
He then carefully lowered the head to its proper position, instinctively pushing the skin of the neck onto the shoulder. When he stepped back, he smiled and said, “My God, I didn’t thing I’d ever see you again,” and began to sob. “I’ve missed you so much!” Through his tears, it appeared to him that the body was whole, and the way the hands turned upward beside the thighs resembled how one within a confined space might gesture to another that he wanted to be embraced.
“I’m so sorry she did this to you!” he said, his voice quavering. “I love you!”
He secured the lid and fastened the two latches at each end, but he did not cover it with the blankets, nor did he lock the shed behind him. Neither seemed necessary anymore.
The house was cool and quiet, and smelled of timber. Rather than switch on ceiling lights, he used the flashlight to find matches and then lit several candles from the pantry that gave the rooms a different vibrancy. He walked through every space, unhurried, acquainting himself with the textures of walls and furnishings he had never bothered to appreciate.
By candlelight he made his way to the bedroom. At the end of the empty bed was the vulgar blanket; he dragged it with his foot across the floor to the closet, from which he took new bedsheets, and as he stretched them over the mattress, he wondered whether his dreams would be tranquil.
Sunlight and the sounds of titmice and towhees woke him, but for several minutes he lay there–his body stretched across the bed, unperturbed–and merely listened. When he rose, it was with purpose.
Today I finish. Nothing else.
The house was warm, so he dressed accordingly and ate only a piece of toast spread with strawberry jam before leaving. From the porch the air had a peculiar, unnamable sweetness that intensified as he walked the flagstones, tapping each one with the tip of his machete.
He made no plan to visit his son until later that evening, to tell him that he had finished carving a trail that would make him proud, but when he looked over at the shed to wave at the body therein, he saw that the door was open. The machete scratched against the last flagstone while he stood and tried to recall whether he had closed it properly.
Deciding to close it later, once the trail was complete, he continued toward the bright, cleared entrance to his forest.
The earth felt soft and pliable beneath his feet, and the air rustling below the canopy was cool and fragrant. Although he walked slowly, the path felt longer, more serpentine than he had remembered making it; yet every gradual arc, every veer, was by his own hand and met with his approval.
One part was noticeably darker. The proximity of the flanking trees and the way the remaining lower branches were entwined resembled a tunnel, from which flowed a steady stream of crisp air imbued with an aroma he could not name.
He stopped some thirty yards from the mouth of the corridor, where a shadowed figure began walking toward him. Filtered light from above slowly washed away the shadows to reveal his son, who was wearing his winter clothes and holding his other machete.
Beyond their control, each ran toward the other, surrendered his blade to the forest floor, and embraced.
The fragrance of the air that permeated the trees and enveloped him and his son was now unmistakably fresh; newborn.
Credit: Eldritch Thrum
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