This story is by Oz Brown and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Finding a New Shape
Smooth brown slivers slip from the spoon as I shave the handle’s edges. The carving knife is short, stubby and breathtakingly sharp; at the right angle it slides through the wood without pause. I guide the handle in my fist and pull with my thumb. A long scrap separates itself from the whole and flutters down, spiralling to land softly on the pile below.
“You’re getting better,” she says. I look up and meet her eyes. Level, fixed and with the hint of a smile dancing in the creases. She doesn’t give praise easily and my joy at this offering blooms.
“Thanks,” I reply. “But not good enough yet. Still too rough, too lumpy.” I hold out the spoon and the knife. “Want to help?”
She shakes her head slowly – a small but final gesture. Her eyes stay trained on mine, but the smile has faded and my joy with it.
The room settles back into near-silence, broken only by the soft scrapes and whispers of my labour. She turns her head to gaze out of the window. We are in a second floor apartment and beyond the glass a great oak is succumbing to the elements. Its leaves have taken on their myriad autumn hues, desperately beautiful against the leaden sky beyond, and with the cooling season it fights to hold on to them. But this fight is futile. The glory of summer is past and it is losing its grip.
A breeze ripples through its branches and they tap and scratch at the window, pleading to be let in; to feel a warm embrace again.
“You can’t stay here, you know.” She is looking at me again. “You love the fall. Get your bike out or go for a hike. Call the guys and arrange a camping trip. Talk to your friends. But please, just get outside again. You can’t keep bringing me here, it won’t help. It won’t change anything.”
I interrogate the view outside, searching for some redeeming quality. There is nothing. Inside, something shifts and I feel the acid welling up, but I clamp down on it hard. I turn back to the spoon, back to the comfort of the task at hand. Repetitive strokes peeling away the layers to reveal the shape beneath.
“There’s nothing out there for me. You’re the only person I would talk to about what happened. Stay with me. Please?”
She looks away and doesn’t answer. Her gaze drifts to the photos of us on the wall. They are a collection of the two of us from our camping trip to Yosemite the year before and there, sitting casually in amongst them, is my favourite memory. We had hiked the Mist Trail and climbed to the top of Nevada Falls. It was a cold day but the sky was clear, the sun was out and we were sweating from the climb. For long minutes we just stared at the view – a goliath U-shaped valley carved out by a vast, sprawling glacier in the last ice-age. Without warning I turned and kissed her over and over again on the cheek while she giggled and wriggled beneath me. With phone in hand I took a picture at arm’s length. It captured the moment perfectly – awesome, looming towers of rock cast in a rainbow mist from the spray of the thundering waterfall, the peak of Half-Dome glowering proudly off to the side and in the middle of it all: the two of us, wreathed in damp ecstasy.
That was last fall and our best trip together. In the silence beneath the cedar and fir we grew into each other. Our camp was nestled in a meander of the Merced River, whose glacial water flowed deep and cold. Sharp, strong currents scattered looping eddies that flared across its clear black surface, telling of immense boulders beneath. By day we explored and by night we huddled together next to the fire, talking and listening to music before swaddling ourselves in blankets and falling asleep, our limbs entangled, our shape made whole.
She turns back to me. “The time we had together was wonderful, but it’s over now. You have to move on.”
“What, like you have?”
Her smile is sad and it chides me. “That’s not fair,” she says softly.
The acid returns and this time I struggle to hold it down. A deep chasm has opened up inside me and in that void a geyser threatens to burst.
“When you left-”
“When you left, you took the best part of me with you. By telling me to go outside, to carry on, you’re telling me to leave you behind. To just accept that that-” I nod towards the picture.
“Will never happen again. To accept that it’s gone, it’s past, and the happiness we had that day, and all those days…” I wave a hand pathetically. She shifts and begins reaching towards me. I think that she is going to put her hand on mine, but she hesitates. I crave her touch, her warmth. Instead a chill pierces the room, and I shiver. In the end she draws her hand back, and sighs.
“In time, it will get better,” she says. “I know it’s hard, but you won’t be leaving me behind. I’m not in here-” her gesture sweeps the room. “I’m in here.” She taps my temple. Then she stands, and now it’s my turn to ask her to stop.
“Don’t go. Not yet.” I plead with her – every piece of me yearns for her to stay. To be with me, to talk to me, or to sit in silence. But I can’t cope with the thought of being alone again.
“I have to. You know I do.”
I look up at her, imploring. “That day-”
She reaches out, her index finger raised as if to touch my lips.
“The day you died…I should have said something. I knew it was too wet to be safe, I should have stopped us from going. We should never have been on the roads in the first place.” Anger and pain burgeon inside me and my carving hand slips, the knife slicing into my thumb. For a moment the line of the cut is clear, then deep red floods the space and a bloody rivulet snakes its way down my hand, down my wrist, staining the spoon handle and dripping unimpeded onto the floor.
“It’s not your fault. Maybe you could have stopped us from going, but then what? We weren’t made to stay indoors. Sometimes accidents just happen, and it’s not fair and it’s not right and it’s left us with this mess. But I died and I have gone. You have to come to terms with that and you can’t do it alone, stuck in this apartment with your memories and your crappy spoons.”
I smile weakly, despite myself. “I thought you said I was getting better.”
“You are, but you really weren’t very good to begin with. There, see. You can still laugh. You’re still in there. It’s time to get out.” She leans down and for a moment I feel the softest breath of a kiss brush my cheek and faintly, so faintly, a whisper in my ear: “Go find your shape again.” I close my eyes and I am transported back to Yosemite, to the piercing blue and rainbow mist and sheer cliffs and silently coursing river; to the enveloping dark and the crackling fire and the deep comfort of being wrapped up in her arms, skin on skin, love made flesh.
When I open my eyes, I am alone. My hands go slack and the knife clatters to the floor, while the spoon lands gently on the pile of wood shavings and beds in, trying to make itself whole again. All the while blood pulses from my thumb, betraying a false vitality.
My eyes swim, my vision blurs. The geyser bursts.
Outside, the oak has become still.