"How did you know I'd be out here, by the fallen tree?" The arthritis of
old age has subdued his reflex to convention, to get up and offer her
his place on the trunk of the tree nestled up against a broken bough.
"You know me so well, even down to these habits. But I'm not surprised
He squints into the sun, and although eighty years have dulled the shapes it hasn't reduced any of the raucous brilliance of the February sun on the thick white blankets of powered snow that cover the surrounding fields.
"It's nice to see you", he says turning his head towards her, "after so long." He cannot make out whether her hair is golden, as it was when he last saw her over forty years ago, or silver white now like the snow.
"Are you sorry that I came?" Her question reaches him like a murmur from the past, his hearing now so uncertain.
"No, no." He stops now, no longer trapped by the panic that this moment, so important, for which he had secretly hoped for so long, might slip away dissolving into the winter afternoon. And at her next question, asked so carefully, he pauses as he considers all the facets of it. Haltingly, he explains: "Oh, you know when we split up I would have asked, maybe I would have demanded why this question of all questions was forefront in your mind. But the time has arrived when we can stop sparring and just accept the facts. We are all human and therefore so pitiably weak, don't you think? You and me both." He tries to fight the inadequacy of his tired eyes, to, by force of will, focus on her. "The answer to your question is, of course, yes." He thinks he sees her unreasonable disappointment. "Please. Please don't leave yet."
She turns away at his answer and tries to stem the flood of panic. He is still demanding, pleading and always too damn close. Was it wrong to have come? After all these years to upset his fragile grip on reality?
She hears him ask her opinion of the view and knows it to be a lifeline. It is beautiful, silent, simple, stark and crystalline as maybe what they have between them has now become. Without turning, with tears filling her eyes, she nods.
He watches her back and knows that she is crying. Time has stripped him of any ability he might have had to control, to even affect the situation. There was nothing even to apologize for. Maybe she would accept it, maybe not. There was nothing he could do about it, if, indeed, there ever had been. He stares past her at the white dazzle of the snow blanket that flows across the field, at the black pegs of frozen trees holding it all down against midnight winds that would curl it up like a tissue paper and cast it high into the heavens.
He sucks in his breath, even that has become painful now, and pulls his legs off the length of the tree trunk. Waves of cramps and darts of arthritic pain rake him. Recognizing the gesture, she turns to sit even as he invites her to with words. They have come to know and understand each other yet still the formality of words come between them. She sits sideways on to him, her head between his eyes and the bright afternoon sun, which sets a halo sideways around her.
Suddenly he feels overwhelmed by the largeness of his life and hers. Closing his eyes he relives all his life, from his childhood memories suddenly clear, run fast-forward like a movie. She waits for him, patient as she had always been, waiting for that pull of breath that signified that he had the total of himself at last.
He opens his eyes and she is still there. "The others, after you, are all long gone now. I always knew it would be like that and maybe they all did too. So when things never arrived at much, I wasn't disappointed and I think none of them were surprised. I hope we were able to help and heal each other a little."
She turns to look at him, and although he had meant the we globally, she takes it to mean just the two of them. She smiles and he sees her as she had always been, neither harder or softer, neither unscarred nor aged.
She asks about their son. "Oh yes, I hear from Pete. He's doing well, of course. It's been in all the papers. Still, I feel guilt when he visits me -- I feel as though it is a chore for him like my visits to my parents were. And he always asks me to go down to California to live with them. And always I sense the shadow of relief from her when I say that I really won't do that. Then he says that they were talking about adoption and it gives me the chance to joke about going through another Pete again, and what do they want but to finish me off for sure. He is still trapped by me. I wish I had the power to set him free."
She nods, as though this is what she had really come to hear from him. Again the panic comes, although more gently this time. "Please don't go?", he asks. There is something more to say. He takes a breath and reaches into his winter coat. "I've kept the clipping about the accident, you know."
He produces a dog-eared piece of cardboard in which is laminated a yellowed newspaper clipping. He unfolds it and offers it to her with his shaking hands. "I was ready to fly out to help search but they phoned and told me they'd found you in the wreckage." he explains. "You always said that because your mother hadn't lived past forty, that you wouldn't. But you did, didn't you? If only by fifteen days." He pauses and smiles. "That was so very long ago now though."
She reaches out and took his wrinkled hands in hers. The cardboard fell to the ground, face down in the snow. Still smiling, with a very quiet voice, he explains: "I know you have always loved me. It's kept me from falling down all these years. We never had to be together to be in love, did we? Well, I'm ready now."
In the hours of swiftly lengthening shadows, the two silhouettes sit facing one another holding hands for a very long time. No more is said because there is nothing left that needs to be said or that could be. The afternoon sun has become the evening watch, smiling too on their simple embrace. As it dips flaring red behind the trees and giving up it's brilliance, his vision looses the contrast it needs to distinguish one object from another and so, for the last time, he closes his eyes.