Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Window in the Thicket

Denis was numb all over. He reckoned it was like stepping on the same pebble between his foot and sole for dozens of miles and the pain was as natural as the appendage itself. He could no longer feel a cool breeze in the midsummer heat, nor even the heat itself. The rot of mud and fish and drowned carcasses no longer affected his senses like it had when he crossed the river with the wagon. He swallowed so much of that devilish muck that he nearly drowned, having found himself caught between two upturned trees well past the broad course and just beyond the big bend to the west. His stomach no longer ached where the horse kicked him as they lost their footing and were swept down current. Though, if he thought about it too long, then the pain would come back.

Took hours to find Catherine. He first saw her blue bonnet caught in a frothy whirlpool of twigs and leaves on his side of the river. Nearly died right there, for he thought… Yet, he heard her call out his name and his heart jumped when she revealed herself a ways up river and safe on the other side, just where he’d left her hours ago when he crossed. Nonetheless, she wasn’t right. He’d call out to her, but she was deaf to his pleas. He’d throw sticks and rocks, yet she was blind to his acts. She’d just look out over the thundering current, shivering from fear, and scream out his name and in fits and wails.

Of course, he’d try to cross the river a dozen times and save her from her confusion, her strange delirium. But, each time he did, the river gripped him like a wicked hand from Hell and pulled him through a stinging fire of mud and rocks that crushed his bones, nearly skinned him alive. 

Matters worse, Catherine would wander, back and forth, up river and down river, gripping her dress in one hand and her heart in the other, calling out his name in a plea to Christ, stumble over the fallen trees and ripping her black dress into tatters. No matter how much he begged her to look his way or to acknowledge him, she’d turn and go the other way or head deep into the woods for what seemed like days; until he’d see her stumbling out from nowhere further up river or down. Been awhile when he last saw her. He was exhausted.

Denis sat on a waterlogged oak, its bark long crumbled and rotted away. He tried to distinguish his shoes and legs that disappeared into the clay dull of the wet rocks. He thought about the wagon and all the books he and Catherine were reading. He thought about her colored charcoals and the lovely drawings she made on their journey. All were lost, washed down current, along with their only horse, and gone forever. He remembered the horse was terrified before Denis led him to the bank...  Wished he would've taken that as the sign it was. He gazed out towards the river, angry at its devilish deed. Good that Catherine did not attempt her own crossing. Where did she wander to now?

He searched for clearings in the thickets despite their wild knots, looked for opportune windows that allowed him a look into the woods. He loved his Catherine. She was so kind and thoughtful, so beautiful...so clever. She could read better than anyone he’d ever known and draw better than any man. 

Even in the brilliant midsummer sun, he could see her through the thickets as if she were a light of her own. Though his voice was so hoarse it was no longer audible, he’d cry out if she’d move closer to the river; subdue his worry whenever he caught a glimpse of her light deep within the shadows of the woods. He moved with her as best he could, blundering to the east, pausing, and then staggering west down river as she wandered blindly in her misery.

He was bruised to the point of feeling nothing at all, like when wrestling with the men at the mill and he'd be so tired and beaten that he didn't care if he couldn't do more than swing his arms and drag his feet on his way back home. Tired, too. Tired of thinking, but what was he supposed to do? He couldn't cross the river, not until it calmed. And his wife was wandering in and out of the woods with not a sane thought in her head. 

Denis had fought to accept the truth. She could not see or hear anymore; and that was a truth he could no longer deny. But why had her mental capacities collapsed? He was fine. He was torn to shreds from a dozen lashings against the river’s bed, but he was fine. Did she drink something the night before that sent her mind adrift? She made them tea, from milkweed. He was fine.

Did she go into the river, after all, when he was swept away? To save him, only to have damaged her senses in the mayhem? The last time he saw her, he took note that her light blue dress was dry and only splotched with dried earth on the ends; but not wet…not soaked. He remembered her pointing to the rocks near where he crossed, and a tall man behind her held her nodded, held her arm, and they took to the wagon trail into the woods. Some hours had passed. He hadn't seen her since. She had disappeared once again. 

Denis pulled himself up, took foot to find another clearing in the thickets.

Numb. Denis no longer felt the soreness of his body. He was overcome by the desire to see his wife again. He stepped through the skeletal roots of sycamores washed out by a hundred floods, pierced the fallen trees without awareness of having stepped over them. His eyes and thoughts were not on the river, but were fixed on the bank across it; searching, praying for the light that was his Catherine. Whether the bank gave way to stony bed or weedy crag, he didn’t care to take note of where he stepped at all. Only the river's bank on the other side. Only the thickets he searched to find the light that was his Catherine. No rest will ever come. Catherine!

He found his Catherine once again just a stone’s throw downriver of where he crossed. He saw her through thickets so wild and tangled where, by chance, they’d made a window that let him see deep into the woods. Denis jumped up on a fallen tree, called out to her, but her illness must’ve only worsened as she stood there, in prayer, and looked to the sky. Her face, bright with the sun, was flush in color and full. Her hair, a light brown like an acorn’s womb, pulled back under her white bonnet. The man next to her was so tall and thin that he’d easily be mistaken for one of the beech trees. He held her hand and elbow as she knelt down by the river’s edge where she tossed a clutch of white flowers over the water. The young child next her knelt down by the river, too, and she grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back, held him tightly against her chest.

She then stood up and turned to the woods, and Denis called out to her, begged her to stay and wait until he could go get some help from the canal town just a mile or two south. Yet, his voice was so hoarse that even he could not hear is cry, so she never turned back, never turned her head. He watched her light slowly fade as she, the boy, and the man took to a trail that led to the fresh, timber-lined wagon trail. How sick she was, and how delirious with fever or with some kind of mental collapse to not see him at all. Were the ripples of the thinning stream that sung over the bed of rocks so distracting? Or, was he so battered and weakened after the crossing as to blend in with the black and brown and grey of the woods, that she truly could not see him?

A ragged heron startled at the sudden splash of a muskrat upstream and flew to a shallow pool just two feet from him. Denis had never been so close to a heron before, and he used to be so fascinated by the winged beasts, even asking his Catherine more than once to draw the one they’d seen along the Ohio. But, he was too numb to take much notice of the odd, gray thing that stood as still as a stifle, that otherwise would have brought much joy to him and his Catherine. Instead, he jumped up onto the highest felled trunk and looked out over the river where he had just crossed in that terrible flood. Oddly, the river looked calm on the surface, evenly mirrored the sky. Strange it could look this way after all that has happened. How the river tried to fool him; fool him into another crossing. He wasn’t fooled. The Devil calmed the water where it met the sky, but under that blue sheen burned a cauldron of mud and fury that would drown his lungs and roll his body into a knot.

Catherine! Yes, Denis found her again through another opening, another window within the wall of thickets. He could see his wife walking with her cane along the gravel road that led to the bridge. Her face ashen and collapsed made a squint of her lovely green eyes, and her gray hair fell over her forehead like a frayed curtain of tangles hanging from her pretty blue bonnet; the very bonnet his ma had made for her before they left Boston.

He had to get to her. He had to cross the river. He had no other choice. He ran into the water with all his might, knowing the Devil would pull him under the surface and drown him in the rot of mud, batter him against the bed of scouring rock. He felt the water course through his body as if he were part of the river itself, but he moved against the current as best he could. Yet…

When he reached the middle, he couldn’t go any further. He felt the wagon lift around him, as he tried to steady it and push back against the wild current. He felt a shock of pain deep within his stomach, heard a rib crack from the horse’s kick. He felt his left foot get caught in the wheel spokes and then turn him under the wagon’s sideboard. He stood in the middle of the river, its water cool and still. But, he sensed his whole body pulled under the wagon and rolled into the water, his back and shoulders scraping against the rock bed that slashed his skin open like knives. He could sense his lungs filling with his last breath of mud and thorns and river rot and struggled to take another step. He couldn't do it. He stopped dead. He couldn't go no farther, for the river was overwhelming. He called out to his Catherine, who had already reached the bridge. He called out her name and told her he loved her. He told her he’d get help; that she must stay where she stood and not to wander anymore. He promised her that he would get help from the canal town just a mile or two south.

She only leaned against her cane and stared into the water; said not a word, looked at not a thing but the ripples in the broad of the river where he stood. How could she not see him, for her eyes rested on him. He'd swear she could see right through him. Was she lost in a sickness? Was she somehow blinded by the sun?

Catherine then pulled out a sheet of paper, folded it into a square. With some effort, she bent down and placed the sheet under a rock near the bridge, and then she took to the road with carefully laid steps.

Perhaps she could not see or hear him, for the sun danced its flames across the ripples that rang through him like a thousand tiny bells. He returned to the bank, feeling entirely numb. He would step through the skeletal roots of sycamores washed out by a hundred floods, pierce the fallen trees without awareness of having stepped over them. Whether the bank gave way to stony bed or weedy crag, he wouldn’t care to take note of where he stepped at all. He'd fix his gaze over the river, on the bank across it. He would search for clearings in the thickets despite their wild knots and pray for the light that was his Catherine. 



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