A Magic Realism tale of love lost and regained, though not quite as the gentle reader may anticipate. There are spaces tucked between each moment, stretching beyond our imagination, places impossible for mortals to venture.
* My dearest Dandelion Muse, Charlotte Zolotow, who inspired “Betwixt,” has herself ventured away, leaving we mortals far behind; she was ninety-eight. May God bless and guide Charlotte on her new adventures.
Tonight was the night. Brendan could no longer dodge telling his wife.
He swallowed a sip of beer, placed the half-filled Pilsner glass on the rear porch’s top step and stared into the distance at the tree-topped silhouettes of the Adirondack mountains. Swells of green brushed the sky, reached toward the twilight chased sun with its promise of neon to come.
A creak and swoosh snatched him from his reverie. Caitlyn leaned half-way out the screen door.
His wife was ten years younger than he, almost a half-foot shorter, trimmer than most mothers with two children. Whenever Brendan and she strolled or jogged together, onlookers at a distance often mistook her for a teenage daughter.
She stepped onto the porch. “Uh, huh. Should have known you’d be here? I called you a dozen times, you know.” She may have exaggerated the count; nothing was gained arguing the point.
“Sorry, about that, hon–I guess I just didn’t hear.” He picked up the beer glass by his side, straightened from the step and joined her, kissed her favorite spot on her cheek, next to her nose.
“I’m not complaining, hon,” she said, “only asking for some help. Lately–look, it’s nice to have you home for dinner–to have you home at all before the kids are tucked away for bed.”
He hugged her. “The sunset will be gorgeous tonight. How about we catch it later, listen to the crickets, watch the stars come out. Okay? Can’t wait too long or we’ll miss the best part.”
“Fine, but dinner first. Please give me a hand, so‑‑”
Brendan’s poker face failed him as he raised his hands, his beer, too, to clap.
“And don’t you dare clap.” Caitlyn’s mock glare hid a grin. “Not if you want a warm meal.”
All innocence, he thrust his free hand into a pocket of his jeans and glanced about the porch, his tuneless whistle filling the air.
“Good boy. Now, please, please listen. Go round up the kids. Okay? I’ve been calling them, too. No response.” She glanced at the porch’s ceiling as if pleading for the gift of patience from the wooden planks, and without another word, ducked back into the house, the spring slamming the screen door shut behind her.
Brendan gulped the last of his beer and followed his wife into the house.
Their daughter Molly, the youngest, was the easiest to fetch. A second grader, she brought her latest drawing to the kitchen. Caitlyn paused from the food preparation to scotch tape the new artwork to the side of the refrigerator. Other masterpieces overlapped one another, a rainbow dazzle of paper shingles affixed from top to bottom.
Corralling Brendan, Jr. proved more of a challenge. Brendan Sr. glared at his son who still needed to wipe out only five-hundred more brain munching zombies to reach Level Four. The threat of unplugging the game console convinced Junior the zombies could wait. His son was at the cusp of teen-hood; Angst had already moved in, open for business. Its fellow countrymen, Sturm and Drang, awaited employment immediately around the corner.
The family settled in place about the circular table of the eat-in kitchen. They held hands to say grace, a habit Caitlyn introduced after their son’s birth, along with attendance at weekly Mass. Brendan found it surprising that a year after their move, she remained uninvolved with the local Church’s clubs and functions. In the city, she was the main go to parishioner to organize events and solve associated problems.
Their heads bowed, the Staceys prayed as one voice, “Bless us, oh Lord, for these Your gifts, which we are about to receive from Your bountiful hands, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Brendan added in silence, “And if You have the time, Lord, please, keep Cat calm after I break the news tonight.”
Caitlyn, still in her panties and only half-dressed for bed, gaped at Brendan. The window curtains billowed behind her, brushed wings of sheer white against her bare shoulder.
He stood fully clothed by the bureau drawers at the opposite side of the bed.
She found her voice. “California. And you said–you said ‘yes’? Dear God–California. Without discussing it with me, you said ‘yes?'”
“Cat, the CEO flew in at the last minute….”
“These last few weeks, not a word about it, not a hint from you, not….”
“You know what a macho bastard he is–I had no idea. No warning. I was their second choice. Robins bailed out–had another offer. They wanted an answer, right then and there. I–“
As he feared, his explanation sailed past her. Their discussion unfolded exactly in the wrong direction. Her angry words, unstoppable, rolled by like boxcars coupled in an unending line, non-stop, riders unwelcome.
Worn-out, hopeless of any resolution, the urge to flee clawed at Brendan–anything to avoid venturing into the places he dreaded.
The places Caitlyn wanted to explore.
“And the kids–they’ll be grown up, gone sooner than you imagine. Do you really, really think a VP’s job will give you more time with me, with them? Do you?”
Brendan had slowlyretreated toward the bedroom door.”Drop it, will you? Just drop the guilt….”
Mid-reply, he opened the door, escaped before Caitlyn could react. Concern for his children prevailed over anger, stopped him from slamming the solid oak door behind him.
His wife’s outburst of tears, her sobbing, carried through the heavy wooden panels and pursued him along the hallway, down the staircase and out the front door.
Her tears followed Brendan into the car, followed as he sped away and through the miles he drove, inattentively, randomly about the surrounding farmland and forest covered hills beyond Oak Bush. Greater distance brought little solace or relief, brought no real escape.
His passion spent, tired and resigned, he U-turned on a moonlit country road to return to his wife, his home and children. Before he turned into the driveway, he cut the headlights, the engine and coasted to a halt.
Field crickets greeted him exiting the car; amid the soft rustle of leaves in the night breeze, the insect chorus lightened his spirits. The car door whisper-clicked shut.
Still, he hesitated, unwilling to face his wife awake. The darkened master bedroom windows, their curtains drawn back, a sign Caitlyn slept, lessened his concern.
He walked along the side of the family’s Victorian house, a grand survivor from a bygone era. At the rear porch, he sat on a step, the same step as in the early evening, to think, to loose himself in the cricket’s hail to the moon and stars. The trials and tribulations of his life faded, much as they had earlier when Caitlyn and he enjoyed the sunset embers at day’s end.
Too soon, a headache returned in full force, high-jacked the tranquil interlude. He entered the house, searched through the kitchen on the off-chance of finding his blood pressure medication. No success. He found aspirin, swallowed three tablets.
The staircase to the second floor creaked; the floor boards in the hallway creaked and creaked again while he shifted his weight, paused in front of the closed master bedroom door.
He listened. Nothing. No sound of weeping or agitated movement. He turned the knob and entered. Moonlight streamed through the window, bathed Caitlyn’s body, transformed her into a ghostly Sidhe of Celtic legend.
A fully awake Sidhe.
She sat, knees tucked to her chest, her back pressed against the headboard of their bed.
Half-asleep, Brendan eluded Caitlyn.
His wife directed all her resentment and frustration at his back, his protective shell turned toward her accusations. “Are you listening to me? Damn it, are you?”
He lay curled on his side, balanced along the border of the mattress, his arm extended in mid-air beyond the edge, a leg half-draped down its side.
Caitlyn’s words, her roadblocks to his escape, spiraled indistinct and meaningless, shape-shifting down the corridors of Brendan’s mind to disappear into the deeper places reserved for the making of dreams.
A swell of vertigo momentarily roused him, carried him up, down, passing beneath and beyond to expend itself toward some distant shoreline of his subconscious.
Caitlyn grew more insistent. “Will you answer me? God, I’m tired of this, I’m so damned tired.”
Brendan’s whispered. An incoherent mumble slipped across the boundary of his awareness only to flounder in the rush, the cascade of his wife’s words. Eddies swirled, swept his reply out into the torrent. Rather than resist the current, he clung like a spent swimmer to a boulder in the mid-stream of their quarrel and out-waited the flood.
In the midst of his struggle, would-be allies, rescuers, called through the open bedroom window. A chorus of crickets sang to him, the multitude of their songs drowning out Caitlyn’s anger. They carried Brendan safely to the shore, across the threshold of sleep.
In his dream, he sat on the rear porch. The insects chirped. The moon floated above the hills. Something was amiss. A blemish, a rhythmic cadence, pump-like, almost indistinguishable against the chirping, rippled across the otherwise smooth surface of his dream.
Another wave of vertigo, the strongest yet, awakened him in mid-fall.
Whoa, dear God!
Adrenalin surged. Brendan’s limbs flailed; he braced himself for the worst.
The worst never came–not the impact with the floor he anticipated. Instead, he floated flat on his back above the bed.
His mind floundered. Overwhelmed at the impossibility, he refused to concede to his senses. Surrender meant madness–or worse. Reality blurred, incomprehensible and the beast of chaos swallowed him whole, a Jonah deep within its belly. Darkness interceded; he shut-down.
An interval passed. Bit by bit, the numbness faded. His surroundings returned–a refocused reality and the wall of his denial crumbled, one brick at a time. He still floated mid-air, his back toward the bed but the dark of the bedroom no longer obscured his view.
A voice re-emerged. Caitlyn’s voice. “Your damned career.” She stifled a yawn. “That’s all you think–our marriage won’t survive, can’t–can’t. Too much. I’m exhausted, just too much of….”
He stared over his shoulder at her, knees beneath a cotton tee-shirt. The sight entranced him, despite her streaks of dried tears and the half-moon swellings beneath her eyes. Too many months had passed since her unhappiness trumped the tone and intention of her words.
Her voice stumbled, faded. She slid onto her side, drifted-off to sleep.
He tried to roll-over, twisted, tucked, flailed. His attempts gained no purchase or changed his position out of reach of the high Victorian ceiling.
“Cat! Caitlyn! Hey–Cat, I’m up here–look up here. Come on, babe–please. Please, look up!”
Caitlyn’s sadness somehow took form; wisps rose tendril-like through the tangled swirls of her long, dark hair, from her back, shoulders and legs. The strands flattened at the ceiling and merged into eddies, pushed along in unseen air currents. Brendan drifted with them toward an open window, its screen no barrier to the strands. The room was emptying of all the sadness, along with Brendan.
He panicked. Limbs flailing, he passed feet first through the screen. Before the last of him, his head, slipped past the mesh, he glanced back at Caitlyn. The wisps had ceased rising from her body.
He and the strands of sadness floated toward the front yard treetops. Beyond the highest of the leaf-filled tree limbs, stronger air currents scattered the swirls. He proved less ephemeral, much to his relief, though his continued upward journey dismayed him. He groped at the out of reach branches.
The universe above expanded into infinity, unperturbed and indifferent to his or humanity’s circumstances. A three-quarter moon orbited at near zenith, Brendan’s brightest companion in the night sky; a myriad of stars glimmered alongside, the crystal, serene courtesans of Bella Luna.
As if extinguished by a single breath, all the heavenly beacons simultaneously winked out of existence. Unfathomable darkness embraced Brendan. He held his hand up to his eyes. Nothing. He calmed himself. What remained? Touch, the whisper of a pulse in his ear, the soft rush of air through his lungs, the beating of his heart, faint and distant. He waited, counted thousands of heartbeats, lost track, counted thousands more.
Brendan prayed for some resolution, anything and his prayers were eventually answered. The boundaries of time and place dissolved; he slid into the space found between each fleeting moment of mortality where existence no longer intruded. He ceased to be.
A wave in the void triggered his reawakening, rippled across the surface of his awareness. It coalesced, grew more distinct, transformed. A sound. His soul warmed, stoked the embers of his existence. Memories returned–Caitlyn’s whispered words of love, the laughter of his children.
He gathered in more of the resonance–a cadence, mechanical and rhythmic. A pump. Something else. He stretched his senses.
Voices. A woman wept.
My God, please–God, please, help them find me!
“Will he–” Caitlyn drew a deep breath. “You’re certain, completely certain, that he’s no longer there, inside–“
“Please,” said the doctor, “believe me, I….”
The sound of a ventilator wove under and over the threads of their conversation. The labor of the pump and its fellow machines, an orchestra of mindless musicians, sustained Brendan’s physical existence amid a symphony of beeps and chirps, clicks and wheezes.
The bed with his body separated Caitlyn and the physician. “Every diagnostic instrument we have at our disposal indicates brain death. If….”
Caitlyn pounced. “Indicates? Your don’t sound certain….”
“Mrs. Stacey, the damage from the stroke was just too massive. The–his body can no longer sustain itself, not independently, not without all this….” He waved in the direction of the machines and played his ace. “There’s a living will, I believe. Mr. Stacey wanted….”
“Yes, yes, he did not want extraordinary measures if….”
The doctor pressed his advantage. “If brain death was indicated–” He winced. “I mean determined–if brain death was determined. Mrs. Stacey, the machines don’t lie. They can’t. What they have–determined–is brain death. When someone descends into this state, nothing can reverse the outcome. Your husband is….”
“Yes! Fine, I understand. My husband is–effectively dead. You’ve made that point–several times, over the last few weeks. I know it’s what Brendan wanted, I know. We….” She paused to gather strength.
“If, you would like….” said the doctor.
“Please, let me finish. I need to finish.” The doctor kept silent. “I just needed the time to be certain, absolutely certain all hope was gone and….” She struggled. “And it is.” She finished, a near whisper. “It is. I understand. I do. You can turn off the machines. Brendan’s gone–he….”
She walked to the room’s only window, stared without seeing through the pane to regain her composure. A silent minute passed. She returned to the bed, the process of shutting down life-support already begun.
Brendan pleaded for Caitlyn’s attention, his shouts unable to mask the final moment the notes of the mechanical symphony ceased. An obstruction blocked his throat. He gasped. Panic gripped him. The fist of his right hand tightened, held something, someone not himself, another hand in his.
A universe of light burst through the void, the brilliance as unintelligible as the previous darkness. Tears filled his eyes, blurred his vision. Unable to speak, he squeezed the hand again. His squeeze was returned.
Caitlyn stroked the side of his face. “Brendan? Is that–are–Brendan?” Her fingers brushed away the tears formed at the corners of his eyes.
He marshaled every ounce of strength to squeeze his wife’s hand again.
Caitlyn called to the doctor, to the nurse who had entered to assist him. “Oh, dear God, my God. Brendan? Dear God! Doctor! Do you see–he’s awake. He’s….”
A sensation of falling overwhelmed Brendan–a brief dizziness, not the rush of chaos that had clouded his mind the earlier time, eons ago.
His vision cleared. He gazed down at the occupants of the room. The furnishings, everything within transformed, more distinct, as if a veil had been removed. The living beings brightened his senses–the flowers on the nightstand, the spider spinning a snare tucked in the corner. He peered into their forms, past the colors and textures, observed the life behind the life.
His body lay on the bed. Unlike the others in the room, it appeared normal, dull. A dreariness spread slowly across the form. The sight surprised him, saddened him. An old friend was passing. He watched the doctor lean over the body and press a stethoscope to the chest and speak to the nurse next to a machines, now at rest. The young man placed a flexible tube onto the bed’s surface and jogged off.
Caitlyn remained apart, her hands clasped like a child in prayer, the fingertips of the steeple pressed against both her lips. A tear journeyed down her cheek and clung at the corner of her mouth.
Brendan swept down to stand before her and brushed the liquid jewel. Its journey continued.
She stared through him, her eyes unwavering from the body ensnared on the bed. She touched the place he had caressed.
At her favorite spot, where her nose and left cheek blended, Brendan kissed Caitlyn goodbye–and was gone.