If I close my eyes and listen, I can hear rustling in the tree tops even though the air is still. Trees don’t really need a breeze to talk. Today, I imagine the whispers are our voices, recorded by the leaves, playing back to us now as I paddle slowly across the lake. I hear the songs we sang together quietly in our self-conscious attempts to harmonize. I hear us negotiating which rock to go to – more sun, but less space; flat rocks but early shade. I hear you laughing at my silly jokes.
“Remember the Cassis lisp?” I ask, almost shy.
You are sitting backwards, facing me as I paddle in the stern, your fingers trailing in the water. “Of course,” you say, eyes closed, face offered up to the sun. I think you might give me a line or two, but you just smile, remembering.
My heart is full to see your lovely faced soaked in sunlight, reflecting gold to heaven. My throat tightens and your eyes open. “It’s alright, Love,” you say and close your eyes again. “Remember: It’ll be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
I blink and focus on the paddle. We round the point and head toward the marshy bay at the end of the lake. Our spot is hidden at the back of the cove, guarded by the thick reeds that pull at paddles and send half-hearted explorers off in search of easier strokes.
I find myself slowing, my heart pounding with dread. How strange that dread is a form of anticipation.
Almost daily, for two weeks now, you’ve left little reminders of my promise.
“Yes, I remember. Maybe tomorrow, if the weather holds.”
Why now, I wonder? It’s been eight months since I made the promise, but you’ve just started prodding now. What I feel from you is not urgency and I sense you want this done as much for me as for you.
I nose the canoe through the strong stalks and emerge in the little clearing we first found so many years ago. The rock looks warm and inviting.
When I have secured the boat and joined you on the moss, you nod at the pouch I carry.
“Let’s get it done, Sweetheart. Then we’ll nap in the sun. It’ll be okay.” Your voice is honey warm but it barely penetrates my heart, gone icy.
My head is crackling with images, memories, sounds, words, smells. “I don’t want to, in case . . .”
“It’ll be okay in the end,” you whisper and nudge the pouch toward me. Tears stream down my face as I loosen the drawstring and open the plastic bag inside. I stand at the edge of the water and throw handfuls of ash into the air; watch some fall to the water, others dance away on the same indiscernible air currents that hold the eagle circling above.
“Friend of yours?” I ask through strained throat muscles, pausing to watch. I have asked you this a hundred times; long ago you claimed the eagle as your guide. Without squinting, you sweep your gaze into the bright sky to observe the great wings hovering effortlessly. It circles closer, dips slightly, as if in greeting.
I turn back to the ashes and continue, my heart a tear-soaked sponge. I had always imagined the words of Mary Oliver in this moment, or maybe ee cummings. But all I have to offer are garbled sobs and hitched, ragged breathing that constricts my chest and throat until I can barely get oxygen. I am dizzy.
Grief knocks me off my feet and I clutch the rock surface as the epicentre tries to shake me loose.
The aftershocks subside and you are there, stroking my hair and whispering in my ear and my heart slows, the terror ebbs, and relief that you are still here floods through me; washes over me like a tsunami. I let myself be held in your arms, let myself relax into your lullaby, let myself let go.
When I awake, the sun is low in the sky and you are gone, but peace has replaced your presence. Did you leave it? Breathe it into me as I slept? I try to recall my dreams but all I remember is warmth.
I push the canoe off the rock and head home alone with the empty pouch in the belly of the canoe. I can’t think what I will do with it. I can’t think what I will do without it.
Monica Nawrocki lives with her partner and dog on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She earns her living as a substitute teacher—often reading under-construction manuscripts to captive classroom audiences and happily impersonating someone different every day. She is the author of one book and her fiction and non-fiction pieces have appeared in various journals and anthologies in Canada and the U.S. Visit her at http://monica-nawrocki.blogspot.ca.