BY Melissa Michal
The lake draws small ripples at the shore. Pines in the forest across the way sway slightly. Slapping twice against the window pane, a tattered shade moves off-beat to the curtains that billow toward and away from the long grass. Nothing else stirs except unseen robins singing close by. No one walks the distant dirt road. Damp, sharp scents wind inside the house up up to the second floor.
Shadows dance there in the bedroom overlooking the lake. Dust floats and settles. The bed quilt, folded neatly over two pillows, moves with a breeze that blows in and out and down to finally pass through the room and into the hallway. That wind descends the stairs, around the corner to the back of the house and the sitting room. Her hair ruffles in it.
She has neglected the upstairs window, forgetting to shut it before fall closed in around the house. Air chills her through her clothes and shawl. She doesn’t move; instead, she sits in her chair looking out at the lake. The lake might change through the seasons and weather, but she never changes position, at least until it’s time for bed or a meal. She rarely goes upstairs, her legs too tired to take the steps any longer. Years ago she moved her bedroom to the old office, also facing the lake.
The view calms her. That land, so embedded in her being. The land of her grandparents and her parents. It keeps the voices from twisting through the house and into her head. If she just looks outside, sits still, they remain quiet. If she moves to go outside, she feels taunted, tugged back. Though, they aren’t threatening, they can drown out everything else. Soft tones taking over language and connections.
Her groceries arrive by delivery, the same every week, the same time, the same food, different delivery boys.
“Anyone here?” They call.
Her limbs need to work harder to get up and greet the person. Small talk and questions she doesn’t wish to answer, used to follow. Made her want to hold on tight to the boys. To their words. Not to them specifically, to any warm body. After a while, she has given up and left money on the counter, as if she isn’t there. She listens to the cans at the bottom of the bag hit the counter. The boys leave her to her shadows, dropping off the food and small boxes, and trailing dust behind their cars. Her breathing labors for a time and her chest feels heavier as the quiet settles.
In the middle of the afternoon, the sun drops soft yellow rays onto her head and arms. Other parts of her body remain in the dark. For a moment, the voices rest. She never knows if they would return, or really, where they came from. Were they just pausing? Or could they finally be gone for good? Cautiously, she stands. Sweat covers her arms, in spite of no heat. The lake appears cool to her. It has been so long since she touched her feet to grass, to pebbles, to water. The back door in the kitchen is the closest exit. She ambles out of the back room and around a corner into the now faded kitchen. As a young teacher, she used to paint the walls blue and scrub the pine cupboards every few years. That color now paled ten years.
The door is a solid, heavy wood, antique, probably from some old church her husband had told her when they bought the house from family. Her father must have put it in before she was born. The two men had bonded over woodworking. Sometimes she rubs her fingers over the grooves and veins, a smooth surface except for chips and marks from wear and old age. It gives off her husband’s smell, his woodwork shop and the shavings, a musk like woods in midsummer shade. The smell fades when she lets go. It has been a long long time since she has made it to the door.
This door leads out to the backyard and a thin dirt pathway down to the lake. The black door handle gleams as she reaches out to put her fingers around the knob. She sees herself with her husband in the garden culling vegetables, at the lake fishing or swimming with him. He knows not to leave her alone for more than a few hours—that she couldn’t do it without him anymore—step outside.
Their relationship only like this shortly before they both retired. They stand at a bus station, small bags in hand packed for the seashore. She notices colors blurring and her breath increasing. He puts his hand on her shoulder and the weight holds her there, her whole body shaking and sweating. She cannot move or breathe. Small moments like this happened in teenage years and sometimes in meetings with no air conditioning. But the space crowded in here, increasing the further from teaching. Further from the bright eyes that needed her.
He had coaxed her each day, his arm around her shoulders, and his calloused hand in hers. Some days, she didn’t walk further than the porch, or the window. Other days, once off the steps, she followed her husband. And when the warm sun hit her face, its heat pushed her to work that garden plant by plant, dirt so familiar smelling of damp worms, and forget the rest around her. Eight falls ago he didn’t come back from a run for nails. Nails for a new kitchen table where they could sit and watch the lake and trees change.
She knows what might come next if she turns the knob—what always did come next. Her fingers touch the cold metal, turning counterclockwise. Not yet. The door makes a sucking noise as she pulls it back. A groan emerges from the door’s joints. Fresh wind whips into her face. The harshness refreshes her and moves her forward one step.
Then they are there. Safe inside. Dangerous outside. Safe inside.
She feels her body pull backwards. She tries to push through it and ignore the tug. Nothing works. Push and pull. Push and pull.
She steps back and closes the door, setting the deadbolt. This is the last time, she decides. Back to the room with the lake view, she sits in the chair, rolled over, elbows on her knees. After a long pause, she straightens up and rubs her thumb against the wood, lifting the smell from its veins.