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.
Brendan could no longer dodge sharing the news with his wife. Tonight. He would tell her tonight. He sipped his beer, placed the Pilsner glass on the rear porch’s top step and gazed at the distant horizon. The tree-topped silhouettes of the Catskill Mountains swelled like motionless waves toward a twilight-chased sun, its promise of a neon sky to come.
A creak and swoosh roused him from his reverie. Catarina leaned halfway out the open screen door.
His wife and he were an exercise in physical contrasts. She was eight years younger and almost a half-foot shorter. Her dark complexion, eyes and hair were a testament to a varied heritage from three continents. In Rio de Janeiro, her birthplace before immigrating as a child, Brazilian society described her bloodline as mulatta. When Brendan and Catarina strolled or jogged together, onlookers from a distance sometimes mistook the trim, petite mother of two for a teenager.
She stepped onto the porch. “Ai. I should know you’d be here, meu branco. I must have called you a dozen times, you know.”
“Yikes, sorry about that, hon. Didn’t hear you.” After he grasped the glass of beer from the step, he stood, approach her and kissed her favorite spot, where the left cheek blended with her nose.
“I’m only asking for a little help, querido.” she said. “Lately…look, it’s nice to have you home for dinner. In fact, to have you home at all before the kids are tucked away.”
“Believe me, it’s nice, really nice to be home‑sweet‑home.” Brendan decided the topic needed changing. “Hey, the sunset will be gorgeous tonight. The clouds are just right. Want to catch it later? Listen to the crickets. Watch the stars come out.”
“Let’s get through dinner first and, you know…all the boring stuff, clear the table, the leftovers, clean the dishes before….”
He stepped back and saluted. “First Lieutenant Stacey reporting for duty, Ma’am. But…look, let’s just clear the dishes. Okay? Hold off a bit on the cleaning and the other ‘boring stuff’ until after sunset. Otherwise, we’ll miss the best….”
“Okay, querido, no problemo, a compromise.” She smiled and stood on tiptoes to return his kiss. “Now, please, please listen. Go to gather the kids. I’ve been calling them, too. No response. Nada.” She glanced at the porch ceiling as if pleading for the gift of patience from the wooden planks. “Like daddy, like kiddos.”
Brendan inwardly smiled. Over the years of their marriage, Catarina had adopted an assortment of his Irishisms. She ducked back into the house; the spring slammed the screen door shut. He gulped the last of his beer and followed.
Molly, their youngest, was the easiest to fetch. A second grader, she brought her latest drawing to the kitchen and taped it to her overlapping gallery of artwork on the refrigerator. Corralling her older brother Bryan proved more of a challenge. He needed to wipe out five hundred more brain-munching zombies to reach Level Four. The threat of unplugging the game console convinced him the zombies’ dinner could wait, not his.
The family settled in place about the circular table of the eat-in kitchen. They held hands to say grace, a practice Catarina introduced soon after their son’s birth, along with consistent attendance at weekly Mass. After their move to the exurbs, her lack of involvement with the local Church’s clubs and functions surprised Brendan. In the city, she was the main “go-to parishioner” to organize events.
With bowed heads, the Stacey family held hands and, in one voice, said grace. He silently added at the prayer’s end, and if You have the time, Lord, please, keep Cat calm when I break the news.
Dumbfounded, Catarina paused mid-change for bed and momentarily gaped at him. The translucent window curtains behind her billowed, transformed into wings of sheer white against her bare shoulders and side.
He remained fully clothed next to the bureau drawers on the opposite side of the bed from his wife. Unsure about her reaction, he silently returned her stare, grateful the children’s bedrooms were on the third floor of the old Victorian. In all likelihood, Bryan, headphones on his head, still secretly battled creatures of the Apocalypse. Molly would be sound asleep.
Her mouth opened; no sound emerged. Before finding her voice, she blinked several times in disbelief, her hands held at mid-torso, loosely balled into fists.
“California?And you said…you said ‘yes’? Dear God…California. Without discussing it with me, you said ‘yes.’ These last few weeks, not a word about it, not a hint from you, not….”
Brendan attempted to explain. “Cat…the CEO flew in at the last minute. You know what a macho bastard he is…I had no idea. None. There was no warning, none. Robinson was their original choice. He must have had another iron in the fire, but still, I never dreamed they would…they wanted an answer right then and there. I….”
Caution wrestled with his heart, whether to remain bolted in place or to approach her and, if possible, soothe her distress. His words sailed unheeded past Catarina, her head turning “no” back and forth. She gazed into the distance as if viewing the outside world through the room’s walls.
Her eyes refocused, banishing the thousand-yard stare.
She began, “Can’t you…,” then abandoned the thought and sat on the edge of the bed. With hands cupped over her eyes, she slowly inhaled and exhaled, calming herself for the moment.
He sensed an opportunity to approach. To avoid looming over her, he knelt on one knee and brushed his wife’s thick, curled hair aside to caress her neck. Catarina’s arms tightened across her torso, breasts flattened and squeezed together like a boxer protecting herself against an opponent’s blows. She refused to meet his eyes.
“The VP position…babe, it’s…it’s a godsend we can use to our advantage, place the kids in the best schools. We’ll hire all the help you need. We’ll travel, we’ll….”
The pace of her breathing grew more rapid. She scowled, turned to face Brendan, and said, “Don’t…don’t try to mansplain me, don’t….”
He stopped mid-caress and cautiously withdrew his hand.
A puzzled expression replaced her scowl. “Why can’t you see? Just for once, please, open your eyes…just open your eyes. Please, please….”
He stood; his gut tightened in anticipation of…he really did not know quite what to expect. Remaining silent was most likely the best alternative.
She glanced upward, insisting, “I don’t need a hired anything. The kids don’t need the best schools. Where we lived, the city schools…they were just fine, better than here. My God….”
His wife’s pro-city argument was familiar territory. As he stepped back, hoping to avoid the conversation, she sprung from the edge of the bed and grasped his hands.
“Can’t you understand? Think of the kids….do you really, really think a VP’s job will give you more time with me, with them? Bring us all closer together, do you? Don’t you think they notice? Don’t you think they want you here more often? They’ll be grown up and gone. Faster than you can imagine…for Bryan, sooner than later. And California…meu Deus, I am so alone out here. California won’t bring me closer to mãe, meu pai, minha irmã, already too far away now in the city! Hours away!”
Brendan pulled his hands from hers. “Look, I don’t need this. I really don’t. You know damn well the kind of stress…my blood pressure was through the roof in the city. Moving out here was the best decision we ever made. You agreed, you….”
Her body tensed. She abruptly turned to snatch her garments from the bedspread, pulled on the panties and yanked the tee shirt over her head. Tears of anger glazed her eyes when she again faced him, her eyes drilling into his.
She said, “Oh, we? Uh, huh? Your shit?” Her voice rose to a near shout. “Oh…oh, yes. I know all about merda. Left here alone, my family hours away, no real help from anyone. I deal with todos problemas. Remember the decrepit, that stupid chimney, its flooding? Molly’s best school award you missed. Bryan’s tooth knocked out in beisebol practice; his lip split wide open? We, huh?”
His wife’s mounting fury was the last thing Brendan wanted to endure; he had remained fully dressed if the need arose to retreat. A close second to Cat’s wrath was the stress-induced migraine, steadily striding closer and closer. Her words rolled over him like boxcars coupled in an unending line, non-stop, riders unwelcome. A desperate urge to flee clawed at him, anything to avoid venturing into the places he dreaded, the places she wanted to expose.
Gazing at his blank expression, she insisted, “”Just answer me, that’s all I ask. Say something–anything. Look at me. Oh, damn it. Damn it! Don’t disappear on me!”
Brendan raised his shield words, his non-answer, saying, “Everything, every sacrifice I’ve made in this job…everything’s been for you, for this family. I don’t need this, I really don’t, I…oh, Christ Almighty!”
He fled from the bedroom; anger and frustration rationalized his urge to slam the solid oak door behind him. Better judgment, his concern for their children, prevailed.
Catarina’s outburst of sobs reverberated through the door’s thick wooden panels. Her weeping drifted along the hallway and down the staircase. Her tears followed him into the car as he drove off. They haunted him a mile distant. They haunted him as he drove random patterns throughout the nearby farmland and hills beyond the small town of Oak Bush. The miles brought little solace or relief, no real escape from her pain, from the anguish suffered by two hearts beating in common, shared by two souls.
Tired and resigned, his passion spent and head aching, Brendan U-‑turned on a moonlit country road to return to his wife, his children, his home. No other choice really existed in his heart.
He cut the engine and headlights as he pulled into their driveway and coasted twenty yards to a stop before stepping onto the blacktop and gently shutting the door. The lock whisper-clicked shut. He paused in the moonlight to observe the master bedroom. The darkened windows, their curtains drawn back to allow the nightly breeze easier access, were a hopeful sign Catarina slept.
The trilling of the field crickets in full chorus, perhaps tens of thousands, embellished the air. Their song lightened his spirit. Not wishing to face his wife awake, he passed through the house to the rear porch and sat on the rocker, losing himself in the cricket’s hail to the moon and the universe’s veil of stars a sight available to no one in the city’s glare. Like the previous sunset he and Catarina shared earlier, the stress from life’s tribulations slowly subsided.
Though not his headache grown much more pronounced, high-jacking the peaceful interlude with his choral allies. His neglected blood pressure medication was in the master bedroom; rummaging for it there in the dark was out of the question. He searched the kitchen, found a vile of aspirins, and swallowed three tablets.
The staircase of the old Victorian house creaked on the way to the bedroom. The hallway floorboards creaked and creaked again while he shifted his weight, facing the bedroom door. He delayed a full minute preparing himself for whatever lay beyond the wooden panels.
Brendan turned the doorknob quietly as possible and entered. Catarina sat fully awake in bed, her back against the headboard. The moonlight bathed her, altered her appearance, as if a ghostly Sidhe from Irish legend.
Curled half-asleep on his side, Brendan eluded his wife.
He balanced along the boundary of the mattress, his arm extended in mid-air beyond the edge, a leg half-draped down its side. Catarina directed her frustration at his back, his protective shell against her non-stop reproach. Her words, roadblocks to his escape, spiraled indistinct and meaningless, shape-shifting down the corridors of his mind, and disappearing into the depths reserved for the making of dreams.
“Are you listening to me? Damn it, are you?” she said, shaking his shoulder.
He roused slightly. A swell of vertigo carried him up, down, passed beneath and beyond to expend itself toward some distant shoreline in his subconscious.
She grew more insistent. “Will you answer me? God, I’m tired of this, I’m so damned tired.”
His incoherent mumble slipped across the boundary of his awareness only to flounder in the constant cascade and rush of her words. Eddies swirled, sweeping his reply into the torrent pulling at him. Rather than resist the current, he clung like a spent swimmer to a boulder in the mid-stream of their quarrel to out-wait the flood.
During his struggle, would-be allies, a chorus of rescuers sang to him through the open bedroom window, their songs drowning out the anger. The crickets guided him safely to the shore across the threshold of sleep.
In his dream, he sat on the rear porch of his home. As always, crickets trilled; the moon floated above the distant hills, but something was amiss. Some blemish, an imperfection, a pump-like rhythmic cadence, almost indistinguishable against the background of chirping, rippled across the otherwise smooth surface of his dream.
Another wave of vertigo, the strongest yet, awakened him. He felt himself falling. Whoa, dear God! Adrenalin surged; his limbs flailed outward. He braced for the worst, but the worst never came, not what he anticipated.
Brendan never collided with the floor. Instead, he floated flat on his back in mid-air.
Overwhelmed by the impossibility, his mind floundered. He refused to concede to his senses. Surrender meant madness or worse. Reality blurred, incomprehensible, much too frightening, and the beast of chaos swallowed him, another Jonah deep within its belly.
Numbed by shock, he shut down, saving his sanity.
Some interval passed. Bit by bit, the numbness faded, and the wall of his denial crumbled one brick at a time. His surroundings returned, a refocused reality. He still floated in mid-air, his back toward the floor, but the darkness within the bedroom no longer hindered his view.
Catarina’s voice re-emerged. “Your damned career. That’s all you think…our marriage won’t survive, can’t, can’t….” She stifled a yawn. “Too much. I’m exhausted, just too much of….”
He stared over his shoulder at his wife. Her knees were tucked beneath the cotton tee shirt. The sight entranced him, despite the streaks of dried tears and the half-moon swellings beneath her eyes. Such a beautiful women, such a caring mother. Too many months had passed since Catarina’s unhappiness trumped the obscuring tone of her angry words whenever they argued.
Her voice stumbled and slowly diminished, fading away; she lay on her side and drifted‑off to sleep.
He attempted to roll over in mid-air. Twisted, tucked, flailed, nothing gained purchase or changed his position near the ceiling.
“Cat! Catarina! Hey Cat, do you hear me? I’m up here. Look up here. Come on, babe…please. Please, look up!”
As she soundly slept, her sadness somehow took form. Through the tangled swirls of her hair, tendril-like wisps wafted; they rose from her back, shoulders and legs. The strands flattened at the ceiling and merged into eddies, pushed along by unseen air currents. He drifted with them toward an open window, its screen no barrier to the gossamer stream.
He panicked. The room was emptying of all the sadness, along with Brendan. Flailing, he passed feet first through the screen. He glanced back at his wife’s sleeping form just as his head, the last of him, slipped through the mesh. The wisps had stopped rising from her body.
Outside, he floated with the tendrils to the height of the treetops in the front yard. Stronger air currents scattered the swirls beyond the highest of the leaves. To his relief, he proved much less ephemeral, though his continued upward journey dismayed him. He groped without success at the last of the tree limbs just out of reach beneath him.
The universe above expanded into infinity, unperturbed and indifferent to his or humanity’s circumstances. A three-quarter moon orbited near its zenith, his brightest companion in the sky. A myriad of stars glimmered, the serene crystal courtesans of Bella Luna. Below him, the Earth was bathed in moonlight.
The beacons in the heavens abruptly winked out of existence, as if extinguished by a single breath. The arms of an unfathomable darkness embraced him. He held his hand up to his eyes. Nothing. Only the faint and distant whisper of the pulse in his ear, his beating heart, and the soft rush of air through his lungs remained. He calmed himself and waited. He counted thousands of heartbeats, lost track, and counted thousands more again, praying for some resolution.
His prayers were answered; something was changing. The boundaries of time and place dissolved and he slipped into the space between each fleeting moment where existence no longer intruded. Brendan disappeared.
A wave in the void triggered his reawakening. It rippled across the surface of his awareness and coalesced, growing more distinct. His soul warmed, stoked the embers of his existence. Memories returned, Catarina’s whispered words of love, the laughter of his children. He heard a sound, a beat, mechanical and rhythmic. A pump. Something else accompanied the cadence. A woman’s voice. Other voices
My God, please–God, please, help them find me!
“Will he–” Catarina drew a deep breath. “You’re certain, absolutely? Completely certain, that he’s no longer there, inside….”
The doctor answered, “Please, I understand how difficult this is. Believe me, I….”
The sound of a ventilator wove under and over the threads of their conversation. The labor of the pump and its machines comrades, an orchestra of mindless musicians, sustained Brendan’s physical existence within a symphony of beeps and chirps, clicks and wheezes. The bed with his body separated her and the physician.
“Every diagnostic instrument we have at our disposal indicates brain death. If….”
Catarina pounced. “Indicates? You don’t sound that certain….”
“Mrs. Stacey, the damage from the stroke was just too massive. His…the body can no longer sustain itself, not independently, not without all this….” He waved in the direction of the machines before played his ace. “There’s a living will. I believe Mr. Stacey wanted….”
“Yes, yes…it…says 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’s mind is effectively dead. You’ve made that point clear enough. Several times over the last few weeks. I know it’s what my husband wanted; I know. We….” She paused to gather strength.
“If, you would like…,” said the doctor.
“Please, I need to finish. Let me 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, her voice a near whisper. “It is. I understand. I do. You can turn off the machines. Brendan’s gone. He’s…gone.”
Catarina turned away and walked to the room’s only window to regain her composure. After a minute, she returned to the bedside, and stroked the cheek of her husband’s body.
The ending began. With the aid of a nurse, the doctor shut down the machines; the final note of their mechanical symphony soon ceased. He leaned over the body, pressed a stethoscope to its chest, then spoke to the nurse standing by the machines. The young man placed a flexible tube onto the bed’s surface and jogged off.
Brendan attempted to shout for their attention but gasped. His right hand tightened, held something, someone not himself, another hand.
A universe of light burst through the void; the brilliance as unfathomable as the darkness had been. Tears blurred his vision. Unable to speak, he squeezed the hand again. His squeeze was returned.
His wife wiped at the tears formed at the corners of his eyes and said, “Brendan? Is that…are you…?”.
He marshaled every ounce of strength to squeeze Catarina’s hand again. She called the physician, as well as the nurse just returned to assist him.
“Dear God! Doctor! Do you see? He’s awake. Oh, dear God, my God. He’s….”
The doctor calmly said, “Mrs. Stacey, those tremors…they are death throes, Mrs. Stacey. The machines are no longer sustaining his, uh…the physical body. It’s…it’s succumbing.”
A sensation of falling gripped Brendan, not the rush of chaos, which had clouded his mind seemingly eons ago but a brief dizziness. His vision cleared, and he was gazing down at the room’s occupants.
Everything within the space transformed, the inanimate objects more distinct as if a hazy veneer had evaporated. The living beings were brightened from within, the nightstand’s flowers, the spider spinning a snare hidden in the corner. He peered past their forms’ surface colors and textures and understood the depth, the meaning of the life behind the life within them.
Unlike the living things in the room, his body on the bed appeared dim, a dull dreariness spreading slowly across it. The sight surprised him, saddened him. An old friend was passing. Catarina silently prayed by the bedside; her hands clasped like a child in prayer; the fingertips formed a steeple pressed against her lips.
A tear trickling down her cheek stopped, clinging above the corner of her mouth.
To his surprise, Brendan discovered he could navigate. He swept down, stood before her and softly brushed the liquid jewel; the tear resumed its journey. Her eyes unwavering from the body ensnared on the bed, the love of his life stared through him. She unconsciously stroked the area he had caressed.
At her favorite spot, where her nose and left cheek blended, he kissed Catarina goodbye and was gone.