We arrive at winter’s onset. I upon an open-aired milk truck, Lionel riding close behind. The downpour strikes earlier than predicted. I don’t mind. Once those bulging droplets kiss the ancient pines the air brims with a heady scent, coating the dewy atmosphere. Still the truck trundles through. Branches scraping against the front windows, then back, as if in some desperate attempt to claw onto a future they can never be a part. Lionel’s rigid stance grows more pronounced as the deluge turns his faded green shirt dark again. I smile. Looking into those startling eyes, like molten silver, which soften at my gaze, I think for the first time in months that perhaps it’ll work. His horse splutters and jerks its velvet neck and the look vanishes into the depths of his fatigue. Practical hands caress the panting animal. I look away.
The final track is too narrow for the milk truck to venture so Lionel pulls me up onto the horse and we wave goodbye to the driver. The air seems colder the deeper we venture into these woods. A growing chill turns my breath to splinters and my eyes water, yet there is no denying its ancient, archaic beauty. The path is bedded with auburn needles and the soaring, indomitable branches above are cast in shadow, crisscrossing together to form an elaborate cage. We don’t speak. Lionel and I have an unspoken understanding. Marvel first, share later. The only sounds for company are the echo of the rain, softer now, reverberating off the leaves; the thick slaps of hooves and a band of storm clouds above; one colossal, melancholy bruise filling the air with an ever-watchful hum. The cottage can now be seen, if we squint into the mist. A one-storey log cabin advertised as two for the tiny attic loft perched like a church spire in the center of the shingles. Lionel’s sigh behind me is distant. I’ll tell him when we arrive.
Inside, generations of dust have created an intricacy of particles that shimmer like a veiled barrier as we step over the landing. Lionel heads to the kitchen. I gravitate towards the attic ladder, climb to the top and push open the wooden panel. Peering into the gloomy depths I can see the silhouettes of memories flitting through the gauzy light. Trapped up here with no one to visit, to reminisce. The room is tiny, just big enough for an armchair by the window, perhaps a desk in future. Through the oval window I watch the first evening snowflakes tumble to earth, forever graceful in their demise from individuality. Transfixed, I’m jolted to attention by a fluttering at the window, a bemused gust attempting to rattle the thin panes. As I myself, flutter. Flutter in secret as tiny hands tap and patter against the walls of my heart. Searching. Yearning for their lost sibling.
Lionel huffs up and down the ladder bearing our small collection of boxes. The first few trips he avoids my eyes. I can feel him looking at my side profile, and yet when I turn all I see is a retreating back, his caramel waves bent in all the unnecessary concentration of the avoidant soul. The third trip is a little better. I’m quicker in my glance and manage to catch his silver eyes. Hold them while he makes an effort to hold mine, smiles once. The fifth trip is unexpected. Distracted by a faded crochet doll abandoned on the windowsill, I’m startled as I feel his quiet, warm body nudge against my own. Weathered hands find mine and a sigh leaks from my lips as he returns some of their warmth. One hand leaves, returns.
‘I found this down by the boatshed right before we left. Only just remembered where I’d kept it.’
Now perched atop my unfurled palm lays the poetry book given to me by my grandmother, years ago. To see it again, after weeks of trying to hide the silly grief over its believed loss seems an illusion. I don’t understand why he didn’t give it to me immediately, but I school my expression and bury the hurt as I let out a little laugh, kiss his prickly cheek, a cautionary question. His answer: a fleeting brush of lips on mine. And then his retreating back – taking with him the story, our story, still forming on my parted lips.
Lionel doesn’t know that I watched through the crack in the door. I can’t forget the way he looked at his mother. His features were contorted in an expression bespeaking the most unbearable sorrow. She could hardly speak, but in her unnaturally high-pitched husk of a voice she sung him a lullaby:
May you bring love and may you bring happiness
Be loved in return to the end of your days
Now fall off to sleep, I’m not meaning to keep you
I’ll just sit for a while and sing loo li, lai lay.
I watched, unblinking as he rested his cheek to hers and sobbed, the most heart-wrenching sound in the world. And this deep, guttural music fused with her higher keening; creating the kind of love song poets strive to conceive.
And here I lie. Lie against the growing cold and growing stillness. Lie to protect this fragile family. Lie by omission. How can the wind howl so articulately, with such determined passion? How can the pines bend to her every will? Perhaps I was meant to be a pine. A solitary being, yet part of a unified forest. Allowed to be different but all at once forever the same. Told which way to swing and which way to fall. Never which way to hope. Lionel is the only man I’ve ever felt truly comfortable with. People used to think that was strange. His shyness can come across as surly, intimidating even. But I knew deep down he was gentle. Our first conversation at a dance my sister had somehow convinced me to attend floats around in my head.
I turn from the window and begin the climb down the narrow ladder. Reaching the bottom I see Lionel stacking logs by the open fireplace. I know he’s seen me. He’s changed his rhythm. Stacking logs slower, fixing any loose strands of newspaper. Outside, redwoods bend to the gales pining lullaby, transforming into glistening pillars of white. Sentries guarding our fragile future.
‘Lionel.’ My voice has acquired an unfamiliar edge. One second passes. Then five. Until at last his flagging face meets mine.
‘Lionel I’m…’ I falter, suddenly conscious of the finite particles floating around me, entering my mouth, my lungs. Breathe out. Breathe out.
The wrinkles on his face are like crevasses, transforming his features into a cryptic labyrinth. There are too little around his eyes. I continue to stare despite the filmy sheen steadily glazing over my vision. It’s strange how long seconds last when you’re fixated on a memory. Lionel’s tentative ahem carries me back.
‘Are you alright?’ The words seem shocking to my ears.
‘Yes… Yes, I am darling.’ I laugh not really knowing why.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I must be tired.’
I stare at the flames as they begin to stroke the newspaper and feel those solitary eyes drop to my belly for an irregular heartbeat. My own green orbs meet him halfway and in the split second it takes for our eyes to lock they tell me everything. He knew. He knew but never spoke. Our eyes are still fastened, neither one of us willing to make the first move.
‘I thought talking about it would make it worse,’ Lionel exclaims, continues. ‘I’ve been childish, acting as if pretending it isn’t happening will make it go away. I tried to talk about it the whole way here, rolling words around, but I knew speaking would mean hope and excitement and longing. I couldn’t do that to us again.’
He stops talking suddenly, as if he has much more to stay but can’t quite figure out how to say it. Breaking eye contact he continues to coax the fragile fire, but now his hands shake as he prods the florid logs. I crouch down and shuffle over to kneel by him. We sit there, side by side; both moving a little bit closer to each other every minute. I reach for his hand, clutch it tight. He leans his head upon mine and we close our eyes; singing each other to sleep to a song only we can hear.
Image by nikita velikanin.