by Michael Barrington
She was asleep now, her head leaning on his outstretched arm, her delicate, dainty fingers finally relaxing their grip on his huge, calloused hand. The musky scent of her beautiful, long hair, she was so proud of it, stirred up old memories of happier times. He knew every inch of her face, her lovely, big brown eyes, that always seemed so full of wonderment, her delicate lips…He was afraid to move for fear of waking her, but he needed to relieve his numbing arm. And he must do so quickly before he was forced to make some abrupt movement that might disturb her. It was pitch black. He mustn’t turn on the light.
Gently, ever so gently, he raised her head with his arm. Then reaching across his chest, inch by inch, feeling for her neck, taking infinite care not to pull her hair, he eased it carefully down onto the pillow with his good hand. As he rolled onto his back, he felt the tingling, burning circulation begin to return, then slowly drew his numb arm to his side.
She must sleep. She needed to sleep. Albeit the sleep of exhaustion.
She’d cried so much all evening once the visitors had left…had spoken so very little. She’d always been careful with sharing her thoughts and even more sparing with her words. She’d just kept repeating, “why him, why him…. why?”
He had drawn her tenderly to himself, holding her tightly in his embrace where he knew she felt safe. She did not resist.
Curled up on his knee, she clung to him with the fierceness of a wounded animal, as he sat on his favorite chair next to the open fireplace. The sound of the crackling, burning logs, and the low regular moan of the winter storm outside, provided fitting accompaniment to the expression of her grief. Her constant sobbing seemed to come from the very depths of her small, delicate body, and against his huge bulk, she looked like some tiny rag doll.
He could feel the heaving of her breasts against his chest, and the tears soaking into his shirt. He was filled with unutterable tenderness. He wanted with every ounce of his being to take her pain away. He wanted things to be so different. He wanted to change what had happened. But for this one time in his life when she really needed him, he felt helpless, totally helpless. And for him, that tapped into the very core of his manhood, his very being, adding still further to his inexpressible sadness.
He couldn’t remember how long they remained, locked together. It was she who finally suggested they go to bed. And he had carried her there. Like a helpless child, she had allowed him to help her undress and then lay her gently on the bed. He tucked the comforter around her shoulders. They said nothing. There was nothing more to say.
Jake padded through the house, from back to front, shutting it down for the night, a ritual he always claimed for himself and one that usually gave him a deep sense of peaceful ownership. But tonight…
He turned to take one final look at the slowly flickering, dying embers. His huge powerful frame filled the bedroom doorway, and his normally stooped shoulders were now just a little more hunched as if carrying an extra burden.
He undressed in the dark as he usually did. Protectively, he reached over to touch her, to draw her close to himself, unsure; but she responded. Her sobbing continued, hour after painful hour, until finally, there was just the sound of gentle breathing, the darkness, and the raging storm outside.
He didn’t sleep. This was not a night for sleep. He did not know how long he had lain there dozing, ruminating, pondering over things. His built-in alarm, however, told him it was time to work. Despite everything, the inexorable life of the ranch called him into action. There were beasts to tend to, animals to be fed.
Slowly, gingerly, he slid one leg from under the blanket, feeling for the warmth of the sheepskin rug on the floor. Pushing himself upright, carefully keeping one hand on the covers so as not to drag them off her shoulders, he eased himself off the bed. She didn’t move. He paused to listen. Her whispered rhythmic breathing assured him she was still sleeping.
On mornings such as this, routines were a blessing, he reasoned. He must focus on essentials; he must stay centered. He needed to be strong for both of them. There were things that needed to be done. Even while lying there beside her, with the winter wind howling and baying at the house like a pack of hungry wolves, he hadn’t failed to notice the constant tapping of a loose window screen, probably the one near the end of the porch. He would deal with that later.
After making his usual mug of black coffee, taking care to leave the pot on the heater to be ready for her when she arose, he edged his way down the cold, dark stone-floored hallway towards the back door. In the alcove he had specially designed for this very purpose, he flopped onto the hard-wooden bench and began the ritual of pulling on his knee-high, heavy snow boots. But this morning felt different. As he mechanically began lacing them up, he found himself unexpectedly saying, “he had the same size as me," but then caught himself, realizing quickly that this kind of talk could only lead to more pain.
He stamped his feet in as much an impatient gesture as one that would ensure his comfort.
Grabbing his cumbersome parka from the rack behind him he struggled momentarily with the zipper, and almost immediately began to feel its familiar comfort and increasing warmth. It was only then that he saw the other one and it caught him unawares, total of guard. It was identical to his, hanging there, alone. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? The sight shook him to his core.
Obscure, strange, unwanted feelings were starting to emerge from deep inside him. Intuitively he knew that they were too dangerous, too volatile to entertain. If given space, they would be like some huge flood from a broken dam and would sweep him away.
“But this is his,” he murmured to himself, drawn to look again at the hanging parka tentatively reaching out to touch it. “It’s his.” And then catching himself again, he paused for a second, straightened up to his full six feet four inches, and remonstrated, “I must get to work; I have lots to do.”
Hurriedly, pulling on his cap and wooly mittens, he let himself out the back door. The force of the piercing, freezing, icy-cold wind, caused him to pause momentarily as he caught his breath, focused on his direction, and then trudged out across the yard and towards the barn. But the rumblings and murmurings kept pace with him.
Never to see him again. Never to hear his voice. Never to feel the warmth of his companionship again. To be no more. Gone. There was such finality to it. It didn’t make any sense. One’s own flesh and blood. A wonderful human being. Someone you had helped bring into this crazy world. But now… gone!
Neither of them had been great talkers. But they knew who they were when they were together. They had a special bond. They understood. They enjoyed being with each other. They liked working together. They cared about each other. No!.. No!.. Not ‘cared.’ It was more than that. Much more…. So much more.
Jake struggled to get his lips around another word that was insisting on being formed, that was so strange, so foreign. It was not a word they could ever have used with each other. In any case, they really didn’t need to. But now…Things were forever changed.
Leaning into the biting, bone-crunching wind, as he lumbered through the white snow-covered yard, the imprints of his size twelve boots creating black symmetrical patterns, Jake suddenly stopped in his tracks as if pulled back by an imaginary, giant hand. Straightening up, he turned his head to watch the watery, winter sun, just peeking over Milligan’s Ridge to the east, weep down the hillside covered with trees, now starkly gray in their December nakedness, and slowly cover the valley floor with what to him resembled a massive shroud.
He shivered, tugged at the collar of his parka, and beat his arms vigorously across his body, hoping to encourage circulation and warmth, while at the same time his soft, squinting, blue eyes took in the whole panorama. There were mornings when he felt that this place was his chapel, where his spirit was at one with nature, where he felt he could touch the heavens. Today, it had the empty eyes and waxen look of a corpse. It was bitterly cold.
The low rising sun finally spread to touch a corner of the barn and Jake couldn’t but notice that it briefly cast a sort of soft spotlight on the extension, highlighting the newness of the boards. He felt a tightening in his chest. His body went rapidly from hot to cold and back again. Beads of frozen perspiration clung to the tufts of gray hair protruding from under his wooly cap. “What’s happening to me?” he complained to himself, shaking his head in disbelief, his eyes misting over. He quickly raised a mitt-covered hand, wiping the back of it across his face.
They had built it together in the spring. It was their last project. It was while they were working on the barn that he told him he was enlisting, volunteering. He wanted to serve…. He needed to do something special for his country…. He had thought it through… There was to be no argument.
But now this.
The loss was soul-crushing, and for the first time in his adult life, Jake was possessed by an anguish and sorrow that clawed and gnawed at his very being. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a chilling, primordial, guttural utterance possessed him as he screamed back into the howling wind at the top of his lungs, “A father should never outlive his child.” And then with clenched fist pumping the air, remonstrated at the barn. “I want him back…. I WANT HIM BACK.”
Then new words started to form, and this time as the tears flowed down his craggy, weather-beaten face, he chokingly allowed them to take shape. “I loved him” …he whispered to himself… “I really loved him.”
And the barn alone stood there listening as a witness, passive, silent, immutable, as pitiless as the grave.