First published in the Missouri Review
Finalist for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and the Narrative Story Award
Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize
It wasn’t the guns that bothered her but rather the heat, which was the true killing machine. Guns had always been with her; they figured in her earliest memories. Her father dismantling a revolver on the kitchen table as she picked at her greasy Ulster fry. The RUC boys armed to the teeth outside the greengrocer’s smashed door, outfitted for war in a dank city street. High-powered rifles with sniper scopes laid out in the boot like firewood, or cradled like infants as her uncles stalked through the muddy darkness along the right-of-way. Guns were cityscape. By the age of twelve she could identify make and model from a ten-yard remove and judge ammunition by the results it fetched: peering down from the second floor of the grammar school as boys shot pigeons off ledges, she could guess the calibre by the damage done. When she turned fourteen, her brother Roddy made sure she had her own pistol, a battered Webley, and knew when to use it.
Despite himself, Moore had been impressed with her expertise when they met. It was in the first days after the flood, when men were still sandbagging the riverbank and women tracked red mud from house to house, the rain forest floor roiling with steam. The humidity was absolute.
“Classic Widowmaker there,” she’d said from the adjacent table, a grilled tamuatá untouched before her. An AR-18 was slung over the guest chair opposite him. It was not uncommon for local men to carry hunting rifles, whether to shoot marauding strays or take boar, but an automatic weapon in the possession of a gringo was another matter. “Japanese or American?”
Moore regarded her without emotion, as was his way even with close associates and lovers, his pitted face a perfect mask. He waited for her as if he’d been the one to pose the question. But men no longer intimidated her, and she stared at him with clean concentration, refusing to back down. After a methodical sip of beer he said: “American. ’72.”
“Brilliant. Gas ring holding up?”
She saw a calculation ripple across Moore’s forehead, where you could sometimes read his thoughts. She’d got his attention. Possibly he’d never met a woman who could talk weaponry with such composure and mastery. “Thing is,” she said, “over time that ring’ll fail you and you’ll short-stroke. You won’t get one bloody round off.” She saw him straighten in his cane chair, shift his stocky shoulders awkwardly. He would prefer it if she left, perhaps—or failing that, stepped over to dine with him. “I’m Maeve, by the way. And your own good self?”
By way of reply he turned his chair half away from her, which at the same time left it half facing her.
She knew the evening mosquitoes would soon roam in from the river, moving across the open-air patio in ragged death squads. Tontons Macoutes, she called them, but the joke was lost on everyone. The locals knew almost nothing of Manaus, much less of Haiti. What still shocked her was that the American eco-tourists didn’t follow her, either—her guests might have the wherewithal to travel from Chicago or Kansas City to the Brazilian interior, but they had no more knowledge of history than a back-country indígeno. They knew nothing of the Troubles, nothing of the Duvalier bloodbath—nothing of her world. Disgraceful, but their ignorance protected her.
She could see the lolling river from where she sat, the water brown as shoe leather, foul-smelling and noxious since the rains had washed the shantytown away. The makeshift hovels had been well upstream, far out of town, but day by day one saw more evidence of them as the river continued to lick at the remains. Corpses had been spotted drifting past, the odd sling chair or Styrofoam cooler, bloated dogs and feral pigs, a buoyant crucifix swirling in an eddy as if possessed by the soul of a dervish. Mangrove roots trapped petrol cans, hats, bottles. The carnage had quickly driven the late-season tourists away, starting with the Kapsteins, young New Yorkers who’d been staying in Treetop Lodge 1 with its perfect view of the fetid watercourse. Maeve refunded their money without argument. Two Canadian couples were expected at the weekend; she wondered if they’d heard.
Without tourists the town deflated, its tiny vein of commerce collapsing. She and Moore were the only guests Casa Ribeiro had served in days. She smelled pinga on the proprietor’s breath tonight, and who could blame him? The drenching heat, the fleeing foreigners, the loss of a cousin in the wash-out—it had hit him hard. Relieved of her normal chores, all five treehouse cabanas empty, she’d been eating lunch and dinner at Casa Ribeiro mostly to make sure Paulo Ribeiro didn’t do anything rash. Just now he was drifting toward her table with a worried look, frowning at her fish. “O peixe não tá bom, senhora Kelly?” No, she smiled, the fish is brilliant. Just in no rush here. He’d insisted it was caught and iced before the flood poisoned the river—an antediluvian fish. To reassure him she took up knife and fork and surgically removed the head, setting it aside for a stray. This seemed satisfactory, and he moved on to his other guest with a swaying step.
When Paulo wandered back to the kitchen she expected the sporadic conversation with Moore to continue in some way, but it did not. He made no eye contact, only finishing his beer and quickly dispatching his grilled chicken. When he was done he laid a large bill on the table, took up the Widowmaker, donned his tarp hat and walked out, his white shirt soaked through in the shape of a giant hand. Only when she heard two car doors slam and saw a Land Rover with darkened windows pull away did Maeve realize that someone had been keeping watch over Moore the whole time, and not only over Moore.
She knew who he was, of course; everyone did. He was the gringo who lived in the razor wire compound perched on a red dirt promontory three miles up the private road, the longest paved stretch in the area. The place had been built for a would-be cattle rancher who’d died before a single tree could be felled for pastureland. Three years ago, Moore had appeared out of nowhere, bought the land and house for back taxes and turned it into a fortress, importing workers from a distant charcoal camp disbanded not long before. It was assumed the old man didn’t want locals involved for security reasons—an absurd notion, paranoia imported from another world. Speculation was that he was a Colombian involved at the highest levels of the drug trade, perhaps a cartel banker, but she suspected he was just a rich American eccentric, some software millionaire or stock trader living out a colonial fantasy. In the few words they’d exchanged she hadn’t noticed a particular accent, but that didn’t mean anything in an expat; his name was English, but that meant even less, as one assumed it wasn’t his real one.
The man called Moore was self-sufficient and generally invisible, which made her wonder what he was doing here at Paulo’s, tucking into a plate of chicken like anyone else. The compound had its own weedy airstrip, a holdover from earlier days; Moore received weekly cargo flights said to deliver not just staples but also French wines and city whores, though this last smelled of hopeful fantasy. Nor did the gringo rely on anyone else for electricity, fresh water, medical treatment, security. He had generators, purifiers, a staff doctor, a private militia with evident firepower. And he had uplinks: a bristling array of dishes and antennas connected the place with the greater world, including, some thought, a private satellite stationed overhead. Because he revealed nothing of himself, all wonders seemed possible.
Maeve’s second encounter with Moore—if indirect—came the very morning after meeting him at Casa Ribeiro. As she was fretting over accounts, the Land Rover of the night before deposited two of Moore’s palace guards at the gate. Her stomach turned at the sight of them: as a girl of twelve she’d seen just such a Land Rover disgorge two RUC men who’d then put a rifle butt through her cousin’s skull alongside the Falls Road. She didn’t want this lot on her land. She strode quickly to the gate but didn’t unlock it, waiting for them to state their business.
The driver was mulatto but the other was pure blue-black, a stunning man in a military-looking uniform. Looking past the pressed khaki she guessed he’d come up in some Rio or São Paulo slum, as much an outsider here as she was. “Miss Kelly,” he said.
“I am Xoque,” he said, revealing crude teeth. He pronounced it as in English, Shock—just the sort of blustering gang name they gave themselves in the Rio favelas. “Security chief for Mr. Moore.” It appeared the brief exchange over Moore’s Widowmaker had raised questions.
“What of it?”
Xoque eyed the locked gate; considered his options. He had not expected this reception. At last he said, “Mr. Moore invites you to lunch at your earliest convenience.”
“I’m quite busy.”
Xoque looked past her, saw the empty treehouses thrown open for airing. “As you like. Perhaps you’ll call when you have an opening, Miss Kelly.” With exaggerated courtesy he handed a business card through the gate and they were gone, the driver putting boot to the board up the mud-stained road.
Maeve had lived in her skin long enough to recognize an interesting disturbance in the membrane that linked her to the world, a flex of the integument, and she felt it now. Throughout the long day she considered Moore’s invitation, and that evening she rang the number on Xoque’s card.
The rest of the rainy season passed without the second flood that everyone had so feared. Television warned that such events would be commonplace now, but the swollen months crawled by without incident, with ordinary rain, and slowly the foreigners returned. Maeve was fully booked. She trained a manager to cover for her on the nights she was away at Moore’s; the place quickly found its rhythm, her coffers filling steadily. Seven months of clement weather set the stunned village back on its feet. But then the rains arrived a month too soon, not cooling the forest as usual but bringing an onslaught of crippling heat. The turn of events was strange enough to be carried on the national news—a death blow. Her late-season bookings were mostly middle-class Brazilian families on holiday, well able to sacrifice the small deposit, and the final month was gutted. In scarcely a week the cabanas were empty.
Maeve was not at peace with the unseasonable heat. It fulminated, like a kind of racehorse lather you couldn’t shake off, the sworn enemy of sleep. Even Haiti had rarely been as bad. By municipal edict the electricity was killed an hour after nightfall, whereupon the electric fans spun down and the ponderous cowl descended. This against a childhood in grey Belfast with its damp and penetrating winter chill.
She slept fitfully, dreaming of broken glass and sirens and whip-like gunshots, fever dreams imposed by the heat and her condition. On such nights her sleep was rife with murderers, IRA men mingling with Tontons Macoutes, the lot of them cursing and scheming in a stew of English, Irish and rapid Creole that only she could decipher. Sometimes her Da was there, sometimes Baby Doc himself; or Jean-Michel with his brimming sexual eyes and dark slender trunk and honed machete, his scent of smoky cooking oil. Certain souls had never abandoned her.
As usual she was awakened by bedlam in the green canopy above. For a long while she lay on her sweaty sheets listening to the cacophony of toucans and araras and howler monkeys, rude and relentless as dengue. The night had drained off some of the heat; this was the hour before the sun would become difficult, as if hurrying to scorch the land before the afternoon rains exploded. The cistern was full and she took a long, tepid shower out back, not caring if the local boys were spying on her again. For all she cared they could watch every day, revel in her shifting contours, track the daily changes in belly and breast. It was all new to her, too. They would learn together.
Back inside the cottage, her clothes were damp and smelled faintly of mildew. Nothing ever truly dried. She threw on a gauzy shift and sandals and dissected a papaya at the tiled table out back, not unhappy to be without guests, willing herself not to think about the money. Two of the treehouses needed thatching and she could not pay to do it. Meanwhile the sun dappled through the canopy deceptively. After breakfast she made a cup of coffee and took to one of the hammocks with a travel magazine someone had left behind, immersing herself in photos of Calcutta while the howlers slalomed down to steal the papaya leavings. They had a vocation. Today she did not.
At eleven she set out for the village, wanting company, intending to lunch early and get back before the rains. Paulo and Ana would be ready with soup and sausages, grilled chicken and black beans and salty farofa, slices of orange and pineapple and farmer’s cheese. With the guests gone this early, lunch had become Maeve’s ritual of coalescence, the arranging of sleep’s debris into the semblance of a personality.
But as she rounded the corner she saw a familiar Land Rover parked outside, one of Moore’s new men leaning against the fender smoking a brown cigarette. A snatch of radio traffic tattered from the open window; he leaned in to take up a walkie-talkie, said a few words in patois, dropped it back in the seat. Only then did he notice the pregnant gringa making slow progress toward him in her airy shift, hazel eyes locked on his. At the sight of her he retrieved the walkie-talkie and relayed a quick report, then stepped back to clear the way.
She strode past him into the cool shadow under the thatch, a macaw flitting away, the scent of grilled meat riding the air.
“Maeve,” a basso voice said from within.
She hadn’t seen Xoque in months, not since she’d broken off with Moore. It appeared he’d been upgraded, his powerful body now outfitted in a white golf shirt, immaculate khaki shorts and expensive sandals. He might have been the doorman at a São Paulo country club, were it not for the SIG Sauer strapped to his thigh. “Not long now,” he said, showing his uneven teeth and pointing to her belly.
“Counting on Lieve,” she replied. Though she was no longer seeing Moore, his private doctor had promised to attend the birth. Moore was not so cruel as to stand in the way. “Lieve’s still up there?”
“You’re invited for lunch,” said Xoque, ignoring the question.
She had no desire to see Moore again but needed to see the doctor with her own eyes. At her age she wasn’t about to give birth with a native midwife. A moment later she was sitting in the rear of the Land Rover with Xoque, as the driver sped them past the blockish fountain and out of town, half the village looking on.
As they approached the compound Maeve could see that something was wrong. The covered veranda was populated with valises and trunks; staff were scuttling past with furniture; Dani, the elderly carpenter, was kneeling before Moore’s prized Matisse, measuring it for a crate he would build on the spot. In the gravel turnabout, the gardener was methodically smashing several computers to pieces. On the tennis court raged a bonfire heaped with documents. Moore’s life was being dismantled before her eyes.
“Xoque, what’s this?”
“No longer safe for Mr. Moore.”
Moore had warned her once that this might happen. Someone, whether the Americans or Interpol or some new Brazilian official he hadn’t yet bought off, would find him here and move in to arrest him, to break it up, whatever it was. Moore was fully prepared for that day, as was now evident. It was business.
Once inside the house, Xoque showed her to the air-conditioned dining room with its vast panoramic window overlooking the forest canopy. The room had been cleared of all furniture but the baronial table, a single chair with a silver place setting laid before it, and on the opposite wall one of Moore’s most prized artworks, a Munch lithograph of a tubercular child whose wistful gaze Maeve had always found captivating. Beside her plate sat a large manila envelope fastened with string.
As Xoque turned to go she said, “Is Moore coming?”
“Moore is gone,” said Xoque. “Para sempre. Forever.”
Alone in the room where she’d first dined with the old man, down the long hallway from where she’d slept with him for months, Maeve sat and waited, gazing out the irresistible window. The sun had already disappeared; above the western edge of the forest a slate-grey belly of cloud glowered, gravid with the rains to come. In the course of a few minutes she saw it advance a fair distance toward the already swollen river, dipping lower as it came on, darkening the room. An erotic moment, the pause before release.
The first fit of lightning came as the cook, Neli, wheeled in a bountiful lunch of imported salmon, garden greens, white asparagus grown under lamps of Moore’s own design—a faithful copy of the first meal she’d shared with Moore nearly a year before, in the aftermath of the flood. A moment later Neli returned with a chilled Riesling, filling Maeve’s glass without a word.
“Neli,” Maeve said.
“What’s going on here?”
A look of fright crossed the youthful face. She spoke in a whisper. “Senhor Moore left in a hurry. Last night, by plane.”
“With the pilot and Dr. Lieve. The pilot returned this morning.”
So Lieve was gone. Maeve felt the baby shift inside her.
“You’ll be all right, Neli? He’s provided for you somehow?”
“By the grace of God, senhora.”
“Will you—” But at this moment the storm exploded over the forest with a stunning flash and a cannon shot of thunder. Both women shied from the window, joined in common reflex. Together they watched the sudden assault on the canopy, the highest tier of green buckling under the torrent. The storm rumbled through the thick window pane in a vast, slow-moving detonation, crowding the room, turning the light abruptly violet. Maeve felt the cook stop breathing. They both saw that it was no ordinary storm.
“Neli, you must go to your family. One of the men can drive you down before the roads wash out. Should I tell Xoque?” Neli nodded quickly, plainly afraid, but whether of the storm or Xoque, Maeve couldn’t guess. “Fetch him, Neli. There’s a good girl.”
When an irritable Xoque appeared, Neli cowering behind, Maeve ordered him to get Neli and the rest of the staff to safety.
“I have a thousand details,” he protested. “Mr. Moore—”
“Moore is gone forever. You said so yourself.”
“I’ll send one of the men.” Over his shoulder he said something harsh to Neli, who hurried off. Then, more gently, to Maeve: “You can’t stay here. They’re coming.”
“I know. But not during this.” As if in reply, the storm hurled a long, full-throated complaint against the town below. Her wineglass jittered on the table. To the east, near her own land, she saw lightning fell two palms at a blow. A cowl of mist rose from the forest floor to graze the understorey.
“The pilot will take you to Moore the moment he can fly again,” said Xoque, and left her to her lonely meal.
As Maeve grazed at her salmon she thought back to her first lunch with Moore.
“You intrigue me, Miss Kelly,” he’d said, “because you’ve mastered the art of staying under radar. You went dark years ago and you’ve stayed that way. Impressive.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
Moore laughed broadly; she hadn’t suspected he was capable of it. To her right, the Dutch doctor studied her plate. “That’s not exactly true, Miss Kelly. My sources are better than most. Though you were a challenge for us, I’ll admit.” He sipped his wine, let this sink in. “By the way, may I call you Miss Flanagan, just for the sake of accuracy?”
Maeve waited to see what else he had.
“All right, then, what do we know? Mary Flanagan, born in Derry two years after her brother Rodney, parents good Catholics. Fled with the family to Belfast after the Bogside riot—perhaps a poor choice. Within a year her father’s in deep with the Provos, a first-class provocateur. An assassin, actually. How am I doing so far?”
For once she was speechless. By whatever means, he’d traced a decades-long trail backward from a Brazilian rainforest to her murderous homeland. She thought of the satellite dishes clustered on the roof, imagined an invisible flow of damning intelligence coursing through them to a screen somewhere in the rambling house. She set her fork down and said nothing, a runnel of sweat wandering down her back despite the air conditioning. Moore went on.
“Next comes a particularly heinous hit—a clergyman in mufti, a noncombatant. A serious error. Mary’s brother Roddy is arrested, but her father escapes to a safe house with two mates. They wait it out. The heat begins to subside—Roddy’s made an example of—and then something odd happens, something I’ll confess I don’t yet understand.”
The Dutch doctor and Moore looked over at Maeve in perfect synchrony. A mute server slipped in to refill her glass, withdrew. The rains would soon trundle in. Even from Moore’s redoubt Maeve could sense the anxiety down in the town, the memory of the flood stirring. There was a world outside the room and she would have liked to escape into it, but Moore’s data held her rapt.
“Perhaps,” said Moore, “you can help me understand how a fugitive IRA hit man turns up in Haiti as adviser to Baby Doc? His teenage daughter in tow?”
It was not for him to know—not yet.
She’d been a girl of sixteen, a virgin with a loaded Webley tucked under her mattress, when her father or brother, it didn’t matter which, shot a Reverend James. She was seventeen when, under cover of darkness, she and her Da shoved off from the Bannock cove, to be intercepted some hours later by a trawler with no running lights, while her Ma stayed behind to pine for Roddy’s acquittal. By unlucky timing she was in the grip of brutal menstrual cramps and then the flu and so would barely recall the rough passage on the cargo freighter, the hold killingly hot as the ship transected the Atlantic and plied southward. The day came when her Da called her onto the blazing deck and they watched the freighter make its ponderous landfall in Haiti, a country she couldn’t have found on a map.
She’d never seen a black man in her life. Now her Da would be working for one—not just any black man, but one anointed President for Life, a blustering connoisseur of killers who’d admired the IRA’s handiwork from afar. None of which she’d fully understand until the evening when she lay half-hidden in the vetiver with Jean-Michel, her very own winsome killer, and teased his rose nipple with the tip of his machete until he told her the truth. By then Da was famous among the Tontons, Irishman nan fou, the crazy Irishman. Her lover was in awe of him. It made her proud. Only later, after a report of Tontons eating the raw heart of a girl exactly her age in Gonaïves, did the grit of it make her flee.
This much she would eventually tell Moore, late one night in his lavish bedroom under the softly watchful eye of a Degas dancer. A bottle of Margaux sped her along, and her lover’s rapt attention as well: she felt his admiration, one canny fugitive’s for another. Day by day she was taming him, this rough, unhandsome American with expensive tastes, and it excited her. She could not deny it. That he would not say what his business was or where his money came from would have troubled a different sort of woman, but she, more than anyone, understood the value of secrets. She stood with him on the veranda and shot monkeys out of the jacarandas with his Widowmaker, all of it coming back to her in an electric surge.
Yet she would not stay with him for more than a night at a time. It was a matter of principle, and she had a business to run, guests to tend to. Rubem, the manager he’d hired for her, panicked easily when problems arose, when an American collapsed with heat stroke or the water supply was obstructed by a dead macaque. And so Xoque and a driver—eventually just Xoque—would spirit her back into town, into her own world, leaving Moore on his red hill to observe her withdrawal through the U-boat gunner’s scope mounted to the balcony railing.
In the empty dining room of Moore’s empty house she abandons her salmon and Riesling, tasting nothing, unable to take her gaze off the worsening storm. The rain is torrential now. The river will soon make a lunge for the town, rushing in through gullies carved by last year’s flood in disastrous and raging flumes. Against this rain the new levee, really just a low wall of leaking sandbags, will be worthless. She imagines Paulo and Ana standing in the swamped ruins of Casa Ribeiro; then the elderly Nogueiras, lame and demented, consumed by the swirling brown waters. Infants will be carried off, swallowed. Maeve pictures her own home lifted off its foundations and sent barging down the riotous estuary. Yet in Moore’s aerie all is calm and abstract. She gazes into the storm like a diver inspecting a vast wall of coral, in no hurry to surface, Munch’s dying girl looking on with her.
Neli doesn’t come to remove her dishes—a sign that, with luck, she’s been driven home by one of the men. Whatever is happening down in the town, she should be with her kin. Maeve pushes her plate away and takes up the manila envelope beside it, unwinding the string from the clasp, wondering who’s still at large in the echoing house.
Moore has left her the briefest of farewell notes, clipped to a printout filled with rows of numbers.
Maeve, I’ve had to leave.
Join me—it may not be safe for you there, given our association. João will fly you out discreetly. I make this offer in earnest.
But knowing you, you’ll refuse. If so, please accept the attached as a parting gift—something to help you get by, and the town too, if you like. The Munch you love is yours for the taking. But I do hope you’ll come. – Moore.
On the printout he’s scrawled, Each of these should be good for 30 days after first use. Clean and untraceable. The accounts clear offshore, then route to yours; they can’t find you.
She puzzles over the thicket of digits for a moment before realizing that they are credit card numbers, dozens of them. It sorts quickly in her mind: the uplink, the computers, the priceless artwork and wines. She stares at the pages, then at the green cataclysm on the other side of the window, then at the pages once again, and slips them back in their envelope.
“Xoque!” she calls down the echoing hallway, and while she’s waiting for him she lifts the Munch from its hook, the envelope tucked under her arm.
From her vantage point in Treetop Lodge 2 she can see it all. The brown, muscular arm of the river sweeping across the waterlogged land, goats and dogs and smashed furniture riding it like flies on a horse’s flank. To the east, her inundated town, a yard of putrid water standing in the Internet café, in the old hotel, in Ribeiro’s restaurant, the ruination general now. The memorial fountain in the square half-submerged but still, with pointless bravery, shooting a streamer of water up through the deluge. Silver piranhas cascading into the small colonial cathedral, the newer graves threatening to leach open in the churchyard. Shirtless men in rowboats navigating new waterways. Produce streaming from the greengrocer’s: passionfruit and collards and bruised papaya carried off by the current. An uprooted palm fanning its panicked fingers as it passes. Even from her perch she can hear the roar of the water.
On the roof of the workers’ quarters behind the hotel, families have rigged tarps and lean-tos, settling in, the women cooking drowned chickens and a monkey on a makeshift brazier.
She’s seen enough. Cradling her belly from below, she crosses to where Xoque sits on the treehouse floor smoking, his yellow eyes half-lidded, his smooth chest shining with perspiration. Maeve lowers herself carefully to the cool bamboo planks and leans back between his raised knees, settling against his body, his cigarette smoke suspended above. Without a word Xoque shapes a broad palm to her huge belly as if to comfort the child within. Eventually Maeve falls into a dreamless sleep, the emptiness blessed and oceanic, while above them the rain sways in curtains tall as the coastal mountains, shimmering in the contrary sunlight, heavy with life.
Copyright (c) 2014, Edward M. Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.
First published in Printers Row Journal
Runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award
Helen spent almost all her evenings with him, just as she had through all the twenty-two years of their married life. After loading the dishwasher and buffing the granite countertop to a pleasing shine she would change into her mauve pajamas, or in summer a nightgown she’d embroidered with tiny tea roses, and slip into the den, knotting a bathrobe loosely around her waist. Denny would be waiting for her there after his obligatory cigarette on the back steps, calmly taking in the mood of the evening, a great stillness surrounding him. Perhaps he was thinking, perhaps not; she could never tell. Often he seemed to be listening for something, as if expecting a faint knock at the door. She did not know what was in his mind and it seemed somehow rude to ask.
The old house had grown quieter and quieter since the children had moved out. She and Denny spurned television, and the Thomases on the other side of the garden wall were elderly and reclusive. And so a kind of solitude had set in. Denny seemed to find great solace in it, and Helen would do anything to defend whatever gave him solace; he deserved no less after decades of relentless work. She would pad in behind him and take her place at the end of the couch, settling in comfortably amid its coppery fleurs-de-lis and waiting for him to break the silence. But there was no guarantee that he would, and eventually she would take up her book club novel and read the evening away, under the gun to finish it before the next meeting.
As she read she never lost awareness of Denny in the closeness of the room, nor of the sound of summer crickets or the hush of December snowfall in the yard outside. Her attention was honed to a fine edge now, as precise as the steel drafting pens and Bézier curves his grandfather had left him when he was still a boy. Though there were evenings when they did not exchange a single word between dinner and their goodnights, she had never felt so close to her husband, and even told her sister June she felt her life was fuller for the quiet that filled the house. It did not separate her from Denny, but connected her to him, as though the silence were the water of an ocean they shared.
Little of this had changed with his death, except that now she dined alone before moving to the den. Denny still waited for her there, gathered into himself; she still read away the evenings, aware of him in every moment. At ten o’clock she would turn off the reading lamp, straighten the throw pillows, and say goodnight to him before heading upstairs. There was a new kind of pang at this moment, of course, a sadness so deep she still couldn’t confess it to others: as she stood before his urn she felt like a woman poised at the edge of a cavern of unknown depth, a cavern that wanted to swallow her alive. Sometimes she would speak to him. Good night, she might say simply, or, once, I miss you so much. On other nights she would take a chamois from the drawer—carefully, as if the tiny movement might disturb his concentration—and gently shine the green porcelain, straightening the urn before she climbed the stairs to bed.
The truth was that she had no idea what to do with his ashes, with this pot of dust that was somehow Denny.
I have to do the right thing, Helen told her sister as they picked over limp salads at the mall. But no one tells you what that is.
They have those little vaults you can lease, said June in a low voice, framing an invisible compartment with her hands. You know, in cemeteries.
No, that’s horrible. He wouldn’t want to be around all those dead people.
The irony of this statement lay on the table before them for a long moment before they caught each other’s eye. June attempted a smile; Helen looked away.
Now you see how hard it is to make sense of, Helen said with unintended sharpness. I don’t know how to think about where he is now. Or what he is.
It’s quite an adjustment. I can only imagine.
It’s good that Paul takes such good care of himself. I hope you never lose him.
This was a sore point between them, though neither would admit it. While it could fairly be said that Denny had smoked and worked himself into an early death, June’s husband was a model of healthy aging, jogging around their gated community at dawn, meditating, heaping his plate with fruit and vegetables. He’ll outlive me by a thousand years, June was fond of saying. He’ll be out there with his fishing pole when the glaciers melt, casting for Alaska salmon. But since Denny’s stroke and the heart attack that had fatally followed it, June no longer said these things to her older sister. She pushed the remains of her salad aside.
How important is it that you and the kids be able to…visit him? she asked gently.
I wish I knew. I don’t like trapping him in a jar just to suit that need.
Scattering his ashes?
You could find a really lovely place, Helen, a place that meant a lot to him.
Helen sighed, exhausted. She looked out into the mall, into the swarm of strangers, and it was the older women who attracted her gaze; how many of them had been through what she was going through? Could she guess which were widows and simply ask for advice?
June watched her sister carefully, plaiting her paper napkin like an origami crane. When it seemed Helen would never look at her again she put the napkin aside and leaned forward.
Have you asked the kids what they think? she said, and held her breath.
At first Helen seemed not to have heard. Her tired eyes continued sizing up a trio of elderly woman who were resting on a banquette outside Nordstrom. But then her back stiffened and she confronted her sister with a stare.
Ask the kids? Are you serious?
They might have opinions.
It’s none of their business.
Helen! Denny was their father. Of course it’s their business.
That’s not what I mean. They’re too young to know anything about death. They still think they’re immortal.
Maybe helping you decide this would help them grow through that.
Do you think Brett would have good advice on what to do with his father’s ashes when he can’t even be bothered to look for a real job? And Brittany—she’s on bed rest! I can’t bother her with this.
You shouldn’t just dismiss them.
And you shouldn’t lecture me on how to parent.
With this Helen stood, laid a twenty dollar bill on the table, and began to walk away as if her sister had left an hour before her.
Jesus, Helen, I’m sorry, alright? June said, falling in beside her sister as she tacked toward the mall entrance. The revolving doors spun like turbines in a waterworks, exchanging one bundle of flotsam for the next. As they neared the car Helen abruptly stopped.
And what about Sonoma? she demanded. I suppose you think she’d have good advice too?
June found herself offended by these words—offended on behalf of her benign, childlike niece with the romantic name. After all these years Helen could not say her step-daughter’s name without a trace of scorn at the absurdity of it, or perhaps at the way it invoked a time in Denny’s life when he lived for pleasures Helen could not comprehend. But in the end it was only a name, and Sonoma was a difficult, irascible forty year-old woman with the mental age of a first-grader, a woman capable of sudden clinging affection and also, in the next moment, screaming anger. She was mercurial but also oddly consistent, because her mind was frozen in time: she had barely changed as Denny ended his first marriage, took on the challenge of caring for her as a single parent, launched his career, courted Helen, fathered a second round of children, and finally made the agonizing decision, with his practically-minded second wife, to place Sonoma in institutional care. Through it all Sonoma had been constant, devoted to anyone who showed her kindness. She did not deserve Helen’s scorn.
Don’t bring Sonoma into this, Helen, said June.
Helen thought for a long mile, hitting all the stoplights wrong, and finally said, You’re right, June. That was uncalled for.
After a time June asked: Does Maya know that Denny’s gone?
At the mention of Denny’s first wife Helen’s color rose: June saw it in the waning light, sorry she’d asked the question. But it was a fair question. After all these years, after raising a family with Denny and finally cradling his head as he died, her sister was still bitter toward a woman who had already passed out of Denny’s life when Bobby Kennedy was killed.
I wouldn’t know, Helen replied. I mailed her the notice but never heard a word back. Typically.
Try again, said June calmly. I know you hate her but she needs to know. And don’t be afraid to ask the kids what to do about Denny. Maybe they can help. It will be good for all of you.
Helen pulled up beside June’s house, her gaze veiled. They said their goodbyes like strangers who had shared a brief train ride, talking of nothing important, the passing landscape more interesting than the fitful conversation.
That evening Helen thought of nothing but her children, wondering what they could possibly know of death.
Each of them had worried her to distraction at times. As a girl of twelve Brittany had been a precocious tease; she was the first in her class to develop womanly curves, the first to sprout breasts, very possibly the first to let a boy touch her. They worried then about her spaghetti-strap tank tops, about the prominent nipples—Helen’s—that no bra could quite conceal. They worried that she would get herself pregnant and abort the baby in some horrible way, or marry the useless teen father and wreck her life before it really began. And so it would be some years before they understood that the real threat to their daughter was not sex, but food. Looking at the girl of twelve, who could have imagined her now, obese in her frilly king-sized bed, her first pregnancy gravely threatened by an addiction to Dr. Pepper and canned onion rings and Kit Kat bars—poisons which her ignorant husband continued to procure for her?
As Helen washed her supper dishes it suddenly struck her that she was certain Brittany would lose the child. She had not doubted it for a moment. Horrible, she said aloud at the sink, but did not know whether the word described the coming miscarriage or herself.
It was like this now: blunt thoughts she’d never have allowed herself while Denny was alive now flowed freely through her mind. Sometimes they escaped the confines of her imagination and went crashing into the world. She had been shocked more than once by some of the things that had leapt from her own mouth.
Only a week before, for example, as she walked home from an awkward coffee with Win Stewart, Denny’s former partner, she turned a corner to find her twenty-two year old son squatting on a skateboard in the sidewalk as if he were only ten. The image struck her sweetly at first: she melted a little at the memory of her shy boy sitting exactly like this on a Saturday afternoon, his Giants cap turned backward as he chatted with Robbie Smits or Justin Trimble, his jeans scuffed with grass. She had loved that little boy to death. In an instant, though, her heart closed. The Brett before her now still wore a backward baseball cap over his bleached hair, but this one said METALLICA in stark letters. This Brett wore Ray-Bans he could ill afford, and talked into a tiny microphone that dangled from a cord plugged into a cell phone, rocking the skateboard back and forth with a rhythm that struck his mother as lascivious. A boy with a skateboard and a grown man with a skateboard are, after all, entirely different creatures.
Brett, she said, standing over him as he continued to talk on the phone. The Ray-Bans inclined slightly upward, unreadable, as his long fingers brought the tiny microphone closer to his mouth. She thought he might swallow it. She might as well have been talking to a praying mantis.
Brett, she said again, nudging him with the toe of her red flat. Grudgingly he ended his call and shambled to his feet. He was a head taller than her but slumped so much that they were eye to eye—or would be, if she could see his eyes.
Take off those sunglasses, said Helen tartly. Right now.
The sun hurts my eyes.
Why should it? That’s not normal. You embarrass yourself wearing sunglasses like those.
Is this really about me, Mom? I don’t think so.
Do you know what, Brett? You’re right. It not about you at all. It’s about how hard I find it to like you lately.
At this she turned on her heel and began to walk away, head high but heart collapsing with anguish. What had she said? She fought the urge to run back to him, to say how sorry she was, to gather her man-child in her arms. None of this would help, she knew, so she kept walking away, careful not to rush. The moment she entered the house she disintegrated into tears, disgusted with herself, as ashamed as a child caught in a hurtful lie.
But it was worse than a lie. It was the truth. She had told him exactly how she felt.
She was sitting on the hallway floor with her knees drawn up when her cell phone buzzed with a text message. Thinking it was Brett, she scrambled to fetch it from her blazer, desperate to apologize, but the message was from Win Stewart. Thanks for today, it said. Dinner Chez Panisse soon?
It was more than she could bear, this confusing attention from Denny’s partner of thirty years. What had begun as kindhearted concern in the wake of Denny’s death now seemed to be careening toward something else entirely. The thought made her frantic precisely because she could so easily picture herself taking up with him. She knew so much of his world—it was Denny’s—and he had taken on a graceful humility since losing his wife to ovarian cancer. But what would Denny think? She couldn’t shake the feeling that her late husband was watching them in alarm as they sipped coffee or reminisced or strolled the de Young, letting the thing ripen gradually between them.
She decided to let the text go, setting the phone on the hard parquet and spinning it idly. Win would be left to wonder. Would he still find her attractive if he knew how she’d treated her son minutes after leaving him?
That evening she found it impossible to sit in the den and instead took her book up to the rocker by the bedroom window, the air of censure thick in the house. She couldn’t concentrate on the novel in her hands. By nine she had abandoned it, brushed her teeth, taken her blood pressure medicine and gone to bed, her thoughts flitting between the horrible encounter with Brett, the text from Win, and her panicked guilt at not having said goodnight to Denny’s ashes. It would be the first time since receiving the urn six months before that she had not done so. At a certain point she got as far as sitting on the edge of the bed and feeling for her slippers on the carpet, but after a conflicted moment she fell back and lay across the bed sideways, unable to go downstairs and face her husband. He would never have spoken to Brett in the way she had, no matter how heartsick he felt at his son’s sideways slide through life.
She slept very late and then could not get out of bed for an hour. At some point her cell phone buzzed: Win again. Hey. You OK? She thought for twenty minutes before clumsily tapping out her reply—OK—and shutting the phone off. The rest of the day went by in a blur; she forgot to eat until nearly three. But that evening she spent many quiet hours with Denny’s ashes, finally curling up on the couch and falling asleep a few yards away from him, hoping against hope that he had forgiven her for Brett, for Win, for all she might have done wrong since his passing.
It did not embarrass her to admit that her late husband had been a better person than she. In fact, it gave her a feeling of pride at having chosen so well. Denny was an inspired architect whose work could be found all over San Francisco and far beyond; in a long career every single one of his designs had actually been built, a record that left his peers in awe. His clients included the Hollywood illuminati, a Google founder, a trio of Singapore Airlines executives, an ex-President, and, much to his gratification, a housing cooperative through which he had designed first homes for a hundred families. Denny worked relentlessly, but never let work intrude on his family time; in the final push of a project he would rise at three-thirty to squeeze more hours from the day, nodding off after dinner but doing so in the company of his wife and children.
She’d met him through June, an accountant with his firm, and was dazzled by his clear green eyes, his reputation and his bohemian aura. He wore peasant-style cardigan vests, jeans and leather boots; he rolled his own cigarettes from a pouch of tobacco. She had never dated anyone like him. When he told her about the mentally retarded daughter who lived with him because her mother couldn’t shake her drug habit—describing with genuine excitement how he’d taken Sonoma to the White House and Paris and Singapore in the course of his business travels, always accompanied by Mrs. Ramirez, the girl’s tireless nanny—Helen was moved to tears. He asked her to marry him six months later. As they spoke their vows at the garden wedding Sonoma burst from her chair, chunky and awkward in her lilac dress, and rushed to give Helen a crushing hug, shouting I do I do I do! Helen was alarmed, but when she saw Mrs. Ramirez beaming at her she reminded herself that she’d known it wouldn’t be easy, and thanked God there was a Mrs. Ramirez.
Nine years later, as she and Denny agonized over a counselor’s recommendation that Sonoma be moved to a group home, Helen relived that first embrace and realized in the privacy of her heart that it no longer moved her as it once had. She saw now that Sonoma’s affection was indiscriminate, a reaction to the moment, not focused on her at all. Only for Denny did Sonoma have an unwavering love. And now Brittany and Brett had begun to exact small cruelties against their demanding step-sister. All of them were exhausted. And so, at her urging, Denny finally abandoned his plan of keeping Sonoma with them for the rest of their lives. As the years went on Helen often wondered whether Denny was at peace with the decision—whether he missed the screaming embraces that had met him when he returned from work, the clumsy love—but he had never revealed a trace of resentment to her, which was, after all, just like him.
The solution to the problem of Denny’s ashes came to her unbidden on a Wednesday night. She was watching a PBS news show just to have some voices in the house; she found the stately diction of the moderator soothing in the manner of a spring thunderstorm too distant to be dangerous. A dull story about Wall Street gave way to a story about some activists who were ramming the boats of pirate whalers, and the screen filled with an ocean vista that seemed deeply familiar. She reached for the remote and turned up the volume. Just before the reporter said the words Bodega Bay she realized that the promontory was one Denny had taken her to see in the early years of their marriage and then at every opportunity thereafter. It was a short drive north of the forlorn little town on the California coast and a quick walk from the stone cottage Denny had shared with his first wife, Maya.
Though he was always careful in speaking of Maya, his passion for their battered pocket of coastline was unabashed. A radiant nostalgia came over him whenever they stood on the sturdy outcrop; he said without apology that it was the finest place he’d ever lived. It seemed not to occur to him that his second wife might wonder what portion of his happiness involved memories of her predecessor. Images of the young bohemians making love on the mossy turf, the rough sea cavorting far below, had been with her for so long that she took them for fact.
Now the reporter was interviewing a weathered salt who looked old enough to have served on the Pequod. Helen tuned him out. Not until the end of the story did the camera return to Denny’s bluff, panning over a Pacific strewn with giant boulders gutted by the surf, the reporter’s hair snapping in the wind. Helen knew exactly where the cameraman was standing, exactly how many steps it was to the precipice, exactly how the wind banked off the rocks and hammered up the cliff. This was Denny’s place of pilgrimage. He had never been able to explain why it captivated him, but she sensed it had to do with youth and manhood and, probably, a companion who understood the power of the place better than she ever could have—a lover who still, somewhat unthinkably, lived in the stone house they’d shared.
Helen clicked the television off and sat very still.
She sat for a long while before having the courage to look across the room to Denny’s urn. It sat ensconced in the warm light of a china lamp, radiating Denny’s persistent silence, seeming to know what she was thinking. She went to it and cupped its rounded shoulder with her hand, at a loss for words, and went up to bed.
In the morning it occurred to her that she should not make the trip alone, and over the next hour, as she packed her things, she gradually realized who her traveling companion should be. She made a call and the arrangements were quickly made. By noon she was at the desk of home’s administrator, filling out paperwork, an old anxiety thumping in her chest. When the door opened and Sonoma came screaming toward her with her unruly joy Helen felt for an instant as if Denny were beside her, the true target, as always, of this strange woman’s love. But it was she who Sonoma embraced. Mommy! she cried, as if it were a challenge. Mommy!
Helen buckled Sonoma into the back seat of the Audi, struggling against her constant rocking. Denny’s urn sat on the passenger side floor, safely ensconced in a heavy flower pot weighted with sand. As they merged onto 101 Helen took a deep breath, wishing for the first time in years that she had a cigarette, and Sonoma brayed out the question she knew was coming: Are we going to see Daddy?
She had not told her daughter of Denny’s death because it seemed a cruelty to do so. Sonoma lived in the moment, everyone said; if so, could she really miss her father? Did she know whether she’d last seen him a day before or a year before?
Daddy’s traveling, baby, she said, avoiding the hungry eyes in the rearview mirror.
As they crossed the bridge Sonoma’s attention was drawn to the shimmering water below and the towering coppery stanchions above, and the car grew quiet. Here we are, Helen thought, the original three of us. As they crossed into Marin Sonoma fell suddenly asleep, mouth open as if to drink in the sun. Helen felt an unexpected contentment slipping over her. She kept to the unpressured right lane until the turnoff toward the coast, then began the easy glide through the little hamlets with redwood needles washed like sea wrack along the shoulder of the narrow road.
As they neared the coast Sonoma started awake abruptly. Had she scented the ocean from the depths of her inscrutable sleep? Helen heard a snort from the back seat and saw her daughter struggle briefly against the shoulder strap, then sought out her brown eyes in the mirror, smiling. Helen surprised herself with that smile: something had shifted during the drive through the redwoods, something had come free in her heart. Sonoma responded with a smile that engaged every muscle of her broad face. Helen nudged the buttons to roll both their windows down, flooding the car with the coastal perfume of verbena and redwood and the faintest tang of the sea.
Soon enough they came to the ragged outskirts of Bodega Bay, the crab shack and convenience store, the fishing squats and urgent care clinic, and Helen slowed down, picking her way along the narrowing curves. The place was not aging gracefully. Her daughter’s large head lolled out the window now, luxuriating in the warm breeze.
Sonoma, honey, be careful. Come back inside the car.
In five minutes they’d broken through to the coast road. The vista of the level grey sea was unbroken now but for the wheeling gulls. There were sometimes whales spouting and breaching in the middle distance, but she couldn’t recall the season: when did they migrate? She imagined showing them to Sonoma through binoculars, felt the simple joy it would bring, but the whales were gone. Then Helen recalled the seals tumbling in the filthy water below the pier—Sonoma would love to see them, would delight in their antics. But there was no time for diversions. Denny sat in his flowerpot beside her, his presence never stronger. While it sounded absurd to say that he might be somehow present in a heap of ashes, she couldn’t deny that she felt him in the car, and had felt him in the living room every evening since his death. He was there in some way she didn’t understand but couldn’t doubt. Did he sense where they were now? That they were approaching the place he had most loved in his abbreviated life?
She wheeled around a last sloping curve and there it was: a gravel road splitting off and heading into the grassy dunes. A mass of blue lupine pointed the way. Helen turned into the side road too quickly and felt the car skid right and then left on the uncertain surface. For a moment she lost control completely. Sonoma screamed in the back seat as she pulled the car to an abrupt halt.
Are you okay, sweetie? Helen asked, leaning back to take her daughter’s hand.
Fun! said Sonoma, her face aglow.
At this Helen laughed and eased back on the brake, letting the car amble into the dunes. A single gull swooped ahead like an unhurried pace car, starkly white against the pink thistle and yellow primrose that mingled with the sporadic grasses. The sea was behind them now, exerting a quiet pressure.
Helen negotiated a narrow bend in the road and there it was, just where she thought it would be: the humble stone cottage where Denny had lived so many years before. Whenever they would visit the promontory he’d point to the rutted access road and describe the way the house lay nestled in flower-filled dunes…the five-minute walk to the bluff…the old stone basin that still sat in the tidy yard. Though they’d never actually turn off and seek out the house, Helen recognized the place as if from her own memory.
She stopped the car in the road and sat for a long minute to take it in. The cottage was well-kept and sweet. She thought she recognized a woman’s touch: windowboxes overflowing with the same flowers that carpeted the dunes, prim white curtains in the kitchen windows. More than half the yard was given over to a large vegetable garden. Again Helen was aware of an unaccustomed peace opening beneath her—the last thing she had expected to feel. Even Sonoma had grown placid. Perhaps it was the spirit of the place that stilled her, or Denny’s deep love for it; or perhaps again it was Denny’s pleasure at being back. Helen looked over at the urn in its flowerpot and reached to lay her hand upon the smooth green lid. She had brought him home. She closed her eyes and slipped down in her seat, feeling time slow around her.
I thought you might show up one day, said a woman’s voice at the open car window.
Helen opened her eyes with a start and there she was: Maya Weatherill, Denny’s first wife.
She’d been gardening; a smudge of soil adorned her face like war paint gone dull. Her green eyes were perfectly clear, her skin weathered like a sailor’s, her hips narrow as a teenager’s in their banged-up overalls. A stretch of lean, tan flank showed where the denim parted. But sixty, Helen thought, sixty if a day.
Maya, she said.
Helen. Have you come to see me, or were you just passing by?
It seemed an absurd question to Helen, an aggressive one; but then she saw that Maya was smiling. Embarrassed, she smiled back.
Not exactly to see you, said Helen. More to invite you along.
Maya inclined her head and at the same moment a commotion broke out in the back seat. Sonoma was struggling with the shoulder belt, fidgeting like a child.
Mommy, she said sourly. I have to pee.
Helen watched Maya’s gaze enter the car and find Sonoma. Maya took a step back from the door, a bright panic in her eyes.
My daughter, said Helen. Our daughter.
Oh, my god. Helen…
May we use your bathroom? It’s best not to wait.
Of course, said Maya, stepping aside as Helen left the car and went back to release Sonoma, who was rocking hard now. Maya wrapped her thin arms around her fallen breasts and watched from a distance. When Sonoma stood before her at last she took a deep breath and held it for a long while.
Hello, Sonoma, she said with feigned cheer.
I have to pee, Sonoma repeated in her sing-song way. Have to pee, have to pee.
And so Maya led the way into the cottage, through the mudroom with its boot scraper and tall yellow Wellingtons, through the bright kitchen with its rough table and open fireplace, past the small peach-colored bedroom with a disorderly pile of books by the bed. In the space of twenty steps Helen knew that Maya was alone in life, a solitary woman growing old in the dunes. Sonoma marched straight into the bathroom—Helen wasn’t aware that she’d learned to use the toilet by herself—and the two women heard the door lock. Maya sent Helen a questioning look; Helen shrugged.
Can I offer you some tea? Maya asked as they waited.
Thank you. I don’t think so.
Maya pulled a rustic chair from the table and motioned for her guest to sit. From the bathroom came a series of groans and then the sound of a flushing toilet, in turn followed by a final and definitive grunt. The two women could not help but smile.
Does she still live with you? Maya asked.
No. It’s a long story, but Denny and I decided that the right thing was to put her in a group home where she could have social contact with other women like her.
Was that a long time ago?
Maya digested this information quietly, looking down at the table with a neutral gaze, but then met Helen’s eyes. There were tears in her own.
Helen, I’m sorry I couldn’t keep her. If you knew—
I think I understand. Denny shared enough with me that I get it. There’s no ill feeling. It was so long ago.
But I was a terrible mother. A non-mother. It’s unforgivable.
No one’s blaming you but you.
At this moment the bathroom door burst open and Sonoma barreled triumphantly into the room. She walked straight to Maya and stood over her like a headmistress.
Who are you?
Well, she said uncertainly, seeking out Helen’s eyes, I’m an old friend of your father’s.
At this Sonoma instantly brightened. Oh! she cried, and gave Maya a powerful hug. Maya bore it for a wordless moment and then twined her arms around her daughter. But Sonoma broke free and stood bolt upright.
Where’s Daddy? she demanded.
Maya threw Helen a pleading look. Honey, said Helen, I don’t know if we’ll get to see Daddy on this trip. Hey—would you two ladies like to go see the ocean?
Sonoma clapped her hands with glee. Maya was out of her chair and holding the door open for them before anyone could speak.
Wait, said Helen as they neared the Audi. I need to get something.
Reaching into the car, she drew Denny’s pottery urn from its protective flower pot and carefully closed the door with her hip. As always she was surprised at how light the urn was, but as she held it it seemed to radiate a comforting warmth. She glanced up to see Maya’s quizzical look, then a dawn of recognition. Denny? Maya mouthed silently. Helen smiled calmly.
C’mon, she said to Sonoma, lead the way. At this Sonoma strode out ahead, looked both ways down the gravel access road, and turned left toward the sea, setting out with great aggressive steps.
Stop before the highway, honey, Helen called. Sonoma thrust a hand in the air to signal that she had heard.
Maya and Helen walked for a long moment in silence, Helen cradling the urn carefully, watching the road. Maya matched her stride, stealing a wary glance at the urn.
You know that Denny loved this place more than any other, don’t you? asked Helen.
No, I didn’t know that at all.
He did. He traveled all over the world but this is where his heart was happiest.
But…he had a whole happy life with you. You had children…he was so successful.
That’s all true, but it doesn’t change the fact that he never stopped dreaming of this place, of what you two had.
I don’t know what to say, Helen.
You don’t need to say anything. The most important thing is that we’re here together. With Denny, and our daughter.
The access road came to an end. Sonoma waited obediently at the edge of the coast road, rolling a yellow primrose in her big hands. Together the three of them crossed the road, Helen bringing up the rear with the urn folded safely in her embrace.
Keep clear of the edge, Sonoma! called Helen. Stay on the grassy part.
They stood on the promontory gazing out at the sea. Down below, the Pacific threw itself against gnarled rocks scattered among the tidal pools, the blue water frothing and fizzing and bursting into the air as the combers barreled in. Gently Helen settled Denny’s urn against a granite boulder overlooking the precipice, then returned to Maya’s side.
Maya? she said uncertainly.
How do you do it? I mean, it seems to me you’ve mastered this thing of living alone.
Maya considered this and smiled tiredly. Mastered it? I’m terrible at it. Despite decades of dedicated practice.
But you’ve made a real home.
A very lonely home. You can’t imagine how still it is at night. How there are no voices. That’s why I keep on living here: at least you hear the surf.
Helen nodded. For me it’s public TV. I play the TV for the voices. Not as dignified as the ocean.
Let’s walk. I’m worried about Sonoma over there. The path needs shoring up.
And so the two women walked along the bluff, the wind picking up. All at once Sonoma turned and ran toward them, full of joy, laughter pealing from her as she flew past.
She’s so happy, said Maya, smiling. Her soul seems wide open.
And so does yours. Shall we sit?
They picked their way down to a patch of wiry grass nestled beneath an overhanging rock, a kind of sheltered retreat high above the water. Maya settled in and drew her long legs up to her chin. The flat horizon of the sea spread before them grandly; below, the same sea harried away at the deadly rocks and the forlorn half-moon of sand. Helen stretched her legs out in the sun.
It took me forever to figure out what to do with his ashes, she said after a long while. I so much wanted to do what he would have wished…but I didn’t know what that was. And then I thought of this place. And then I thought of you.
I can’t believe your generosity. In including me, I mean.
He would have wanted it. I’m sure of it. Maybe he wants it now. I have this feeling that he’s here, aware, with us. But I know what that sounds like.
We don’t know anything. The older I get, the less I know.
At this the two women shared a quiet laugh and fell silent for a long while, until Maya suddenly got to her feet.
It’s too quiet. Where’s Sonoma?
On instinct Helen scanned the rocks below, the breakers, the beach, but there was no sign of trouble. Maya was already climbing back up onto the narrow path, taking the jagged rocks with a sure stride. It was as Helen reached the foot of the path that she saw Maya scramble deftly onto a granite ledge and look away from the sea in the direction Sonoma had run. In the face of her daughter’s joy Helen had not realized that she was running past them toward the coast road. In ten bounding strides she caught up with Maya, who stood on the granite overhang five feet above the path.
Maya! Helen shouted up.
Come, said Maya, crouching to reach a hand down. There was an odd calm about her, a certain distance. Helen scrambled up the incline, Maya’s hand gripping her forearm, and when she reached the ledge she saw tears in the clear green eyes. Together the two women stood and Maya pointed not at the road but farther out along the promontory, past the turnout where the car was parked.
At the very cusp of the precipice, at the very edge of the continent, stood their daughter Sonoma, her face upturned toward a solitary daytime moon they had not noticed until that moment. Helen felt her legs starting to give way and clutched Maya’s hand to steady herself. As they watched, Sonoma closed her eyes and seemed to scent the air, slowing time to a crawl. Her two mothers stopped breathing as one, unable to move or speak. A gull cawed high above, the sound reverberating briefly until the surf rolled in to smother it. It was then that the two women saw their wayward daughter pirouette clumsily on her small rocky stage and, with a great curving swing, sow her father’s ashes out over the Pacific. At first the ashes described a lovely arc, angling gracefully down toward the water. But then an updraft caught the fine powder and lofted it back toward Sonoma, the soft caress of it on her face making her squeal with joy, and reaching down hungrily she scooped another handful from the urn and released it into the wind, inventing a new and thrilling game with the man who had never been too tired to care for her happiness.