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When All My Will Is Gone You Hold Me Sway

I sit in her embroidery chair, legs tucked up underneath me. I turn the pages of a magazine I found when she was crying in the bathroom. I sip my coffee; while I neither sleep nor need the caffeine, I like the ritual and bitterness. I can hear her stirring upstairs in bed. Not wanting to rouse myself yet, I give her a small mental push to turn on the light. I want her to see the wreckage of the bedroom, the hastily shoved furniture, the scattered clothes. She hasn’t actually made the bed here, just thrown more blankets on top. It will be an archeological dig for her to get out. 

As I hear her shuffle around and pause, I get myself ready for the day. I roll out my shoulders, lifting my arms and leaning back and forth from the waist. To myself, I am weightless. 

She moves down the hall, footsteps soft so as not to wake the baby. That sweet faced child; there’s magic in her. She sees me, and doesn’t know me. I’m just another person to her, one who never holds her, and only passes a hand over her lightening hair once in a while when her mama cries. The little one knows that Papa isn’t here right now. Sometimes she looks for them. I watch her as she sleeps, but I let her be. She doesn’t need to know me yet. 

I’m waiting for her when she comes downstairs. I put a comforting arm around her at the bottom; it lays heavy across her shoulders.

“How’d you sleep? Want some coffee? There’s so much to do today.” I hold her in place for a few moments before she moves to the sink. She fills her water bottle and drinks half while the coffee brews. She’d be jealous if she knew I never needed a refill, and that mine was always the perfect temperature. I stand with her in the kitchen, hands wrapped around our respective mugs. I remind her of the things that need to be done; sending off the death certificates, checking in with the lawyer and the medical examiner, figuring out what to do with all this damn stuff in the house. She has help, which I’m grateful for. I am always glad when the people I’ve been assigned have company other than me. 

This is not my first time with her, not by a long shot. But, as she has come to realize, it’s different each time. Our relationship changes, deepens. I am her familiar now, a constant companion for months at a time, and only a flick of a thought away at any other. 

“Let’s sit,” I say gently. I take her by the shoulders again and place her on the stairs; it’s not comfortable for more than a minute, but she’ll stay there as she scrolls mindlessly on her phone, trying to escape me. I sit behind her, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. I don’t have to talk much, this time, with this death. We know each other now. 

There is no companion like grief, I think to her. “How’s that for a business card tag line,” I say, and she smiles wryly. She looks up, looks around, taking in the chaos. Empty boxes are jumbled against the back door, waiting to be filled with the mementos of a life that is no longer here. There are so many; the one who is gone was a Collector. Rocks, books, forgotten glass bottles dug out of the rotten still up the mountain; everything from wine corks and cookie fortunes to postcards and matchbooks. She’s going to have a hell of a time culling through everything, deciding what to keep, and what else she’s willing to never see again. 

I let the dull red of anger pulsing in the corners, held back by the thick fog of despair, lighting up the gray like an ambulance racing through a cool morning. She isn’t aware of it, only of my presence, and that’s ok – she needn’t notice anything else right now. The baby stirs, kicks the side of the crib, and settles back down. She stares at the ceiling to determine how quickly her response is needed. As the little one falls quiet, she is content to rise and refill her coffee. She moves to her desk and opens her computer, every movement deliberate. Nothing is easy right now. I let her go to write about me, and stand to return to my corner chair. Something stops me; sometimes I’m not even sure why I do what I do, other than following instinct. I press my hand to her chest, hard; fingers spreading over her breastbone, my forehead pressed to hers as she begins to cry. It’s not a sob, it’s not a wail; it’s the creaking of the wreckage of her heart, the keening of the viscerally wounded. I support her as she leans forward in her chair, the pine desk no matter in my ethereality; I won’t let her fall as she breaks. It’s odd for this moment to come now. She prefers to save this for when she is truly alone, which is likely why I had so little notice. Nevertheless, I am here. Chest heaving, her voice echoes with the cries of those left behind and those gone before. She cries for her Hawthorne, for her Oscar, for all the promises broken and adventures abandoned. She cries for the relief and the guilt she feels; she cries for the loneliness and confusion she wades through. I hold her face, brush back her hair.

“I don’t understand,” she says. I know you don’t. 

“I’m so mad at you,” she admits. I know you are. 

“I don’t know how to do this alone,” she whispers. You’ll learn, little mama. 

“I hate this.”

“What right did you have to check out?”

“How fucking dare you?”

“Oh god, I miss you.”

“My baby. My love. My heart.” She calls them again and again, and all she gets is my whisper in response.

“Lean in, lean in, lean in. Go through, mama, go through.” All but chanting, I rock her, soothing arms around her.

Her voice softens, her body relaxes. This storm is passing. Exhausted, I pull back as she reaches for her pen. I watch closely for a moment as she opens her journal, waiting for the aftershocks that occasionally strike, but none come today. She takes a deep breath; I let it out, shakily. She looks out the window.“Dawn is coming,” I offer. She doesn’t respond, just looks back at her journal. One more breath, and she begins her daily page. She is OK for now. I settle back into her embroidery chair; I have a project for her for when she’s ready, but she hasn’t tried yet. I pick up my magazine and let her try to leave me behind, a shadow she is trying not to trip over.

You have to watch your step with me around; us Griefs have a way with ground cover. We stay as close to our companions as their hearts hold their beloved. I turn the page and look up when she sighs; the short fall day stretches out endlessly in front of her. She looks up, almost as if she sees me. She doesn’t; she can’t. I’m her formless friend, her constant; I am her Grief, and I’ll hold her in the abyss as long as she needs.

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Follow That Blinding Light Down a Crooked Path

Autumn has fallen a much gentler season than I anticipated. The skies have been Oscar blue for days, and the foliage is brilliant. I’m writing this in the mountains of Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest. A strong breeze shakes down the trees, sending shimmering waves of gold and fire-orange to the grass already blanketed. The branches weep, reaching for their leaves as they slip away, dancing in the wind on their inevitable descent.

My friend has been kicking me out of the house every day for some solo, baby-free time. I’ve gotten coffee, run errands, walked a lot, and written. It’s been really nice; as my return-to-Vermont date grows closer, the idea of learning to be a single parent and handling everything on my own becomes more daunting, so I appreciate these daily breaks right now.

On our first day here, my friends took me down the street to a local park on the James River. Trails run through it and connect some parks via the waterway as well. The river is home to some class 4 rapids, nearly unheard of within city limits. Signs posted state that with the river over five feet, life jackets are required for anyone entering the water in any manner; over nine feet and one must have a permit. The plan is to stay firmly on land, a plan endorsed by both our dog and theirs. The pups competed to see who could pee in more spots; I believe it ended in a tie. 

One of my host friends is damn near a botanist, by knowledge if not by trade. He had been sharing an incredible (read: nerdy) amount of detail about the woods, pointing out the conservation efforts to encourage the old growth forest, the different native plants (Latin names included!) and the invasive species. About a half mile into the woods, he pointed out wild grapevine, nearly half a foot thick where it broke free of the ground. It rose and dove along the ground, its boughs and bends mimicking the motion of deep sea monsters, not so out of place with the muffled rush of the river behind us. Sinuous in its stillness, it wrapped around a giantess of a tree. The oak rose from its hidden roots, at least four feet across; the deep ridges of her bark were worn away in softened patches from the constant embrace of the grapevine. I laid my fingers in her grooves, feeling them sink toward the heart, and feeling mine beat in response. There are many trees I have felt a connection with; it’s never something I have questioned, but enjoyed. I felt the quiet excitement of discovering an old friend in a new neighborhood. We paused long enough to take some pictures of Lucy and I there, and I promised myself I’d return soon.

Two days later, when my friend kicked me out for the first time, I went nearly running down to the trail. I was almost immediately slowed by the reminder in the morning fog to enjoy the journey. My eyes sought to follow all the flitting of small wings across the road. The calls of crows and jays and the indistinguishable chirps were a backdrop to new and unfamiliar songs. I entered the park and picked up the beginning of the trail. Alone, my steps lengthened over what I had taken with the stroller and the dogs and my friends; they fell on the gravel, the crepitus dampened from the hundreds of feet that had fallen before mine. It took longer than I anticipated to reach the tree, but eventually my steps fell silent as in reverence as the crushed rocks gave way to smooth, dark earth.

I reintroduced myself, sinking my fingers into the creases in her bark again. I ran my hand over the exposed fibers of the grapevine, completing the circuit, my body as battery. I breathe in the energy and the peace. I disconnect and retreat to the bench across the path. I lose myself for an hour or more, pen in hand, words flowing like an extension of myself onto the pages of my notebook. I forget to move much at any point; by the time my stomach demands we leave, my feet are tucked up under me asleep and the muscles in my back feel tangled and tight. I roll everything out for a few minutes, pay my last minute respects to the tree and the vine, and start back down the path towards home and another cup of coffee.

I come across the fairy bower accidentally, as most do. I was on the main path, bag slung over my shoulder with its pens and pencils quietly clacking together with my steps. I glanced down the side paths that wandered off the main, quick jaunts down to the riverbank. One to the left caught my attention, calling me back from my automatic forward motion. I looked down the path with its slight winding, a grapevine twisted in an arch overhead, tall enough for most men to pass through without stooping. English ivy thickly banked both sides and climbed to intertwine with the wild grape. The boughs didn’t quite reach down to the other side, leaving the arch just incomplete. Beyond it a new tree, verdant in its youth and against the ivy, stood like the centerpiece to this wild garden. The tricks of the fey, was the first thought that came to mind, and didn’t for a second believe that because I was within the city limits they would not also be here among the old growth forest. I found I had taken a few steps down the path and turned back to the main road. I nearly bumped into someone who clearly did not understand the need for distancing. 

He stood casually, leaning against an old hickory. His boots were clean and his clothes crisp; add a to-go cup of coffee or a slim briefcase, and he could be any local businessman just stepping out of the office for a bit. He carried nothing, wore no watch, no rings. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t notice that he didn’t belong there. 

“Beautiful day,” he said, the barest hint of a smile playing around his lips.

“It is,” I replied. With a slight nod, I shifted my weight to continue forward. He came out of his lean to stand fully in the way between me and the main path. 

“This is a gorgeous time of year to visit. You have made it just in time for the leaves to turn and fall.”

If there had been any doubt in my mind, his lyrical small talk would have put that to rest. I smiled but did not answer. 

“What’s your name?” the fairy asked. 

I nearly replied. I felt the warmth of the day as a gentle breeze stirred the leaves beside us. 

“Not a lot of people out this morning, hm?” he mused, watching me. I had been hoping for some jogger or intrepid dog walker to interrupt with their passing. I realized that he had blocked the fairy path from sight. There would be no accidental intercession. 

“Your name,” he said, voice a little stronger and with a slight ring of authority. The fey command respect, even with their antics.

“Hawthorne,” I replied. Knots inside me that I hadn’t been aware of loosened, and my body relaxed.

He looked surprised. “Hawthorne. That’s not a common name. Your given?”

“Chosen,” I said simply. He nodded, satisfied.

“A strong choice. A name like that carries magic in it. The owning of it, the speaking of it.”

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “I know.”

A companionable silence fell between us as a flock of swallows took to the clear morning sky above, trilling, their song falling through the canopy like a gentle summer rain. 

“Have you no interest in continuing down this path for your travels?” he questioned me. 

“No, but thank you,” I said, firmly, but with respect. He looked me up and down, and his eyes searched mine. I maintained my polite smile; as his gaze lengthened, I raised my eyebrow a fraction.

“Very well,” he said, letting go of the search. “May the rest of your day be as lovely.” He stepped back cordially to allow me to pass.

“Yours as well,” I replied, walking back towards the gravel of the main path. I didn’t dare look back until I made the turn; as I suspected, there was no trace of the man. The bower stood silent down its crooked path, still ensconced in shadow. The light beyond was dappled and no longer highlighted the young tree; in fact, it had become indistinguishable from those that surrounded it. 

I left the woods feeling lighter. I had come here to heal. I needed to get out of where I was for my heart to stop seeing them at every turn. Here there was no history, no memories to dim new ones made. I need that space right now, in the immediate hereafter. We were never in this place together. And so I had come, seeking peace, and leaving with far more than I imagined.

I lied to the fairy I met, but with mischief and no malice. Giving the fey Hawthorne’s name lets me let go of a little bit of them; I can’t carry all of them, my heart is already so heavy. I know they wouldn’t mind; they had so many more (mis)adventures left. I can’t think of a better way to let them live them out than with those are not quite of this world, but not quite out of it either.