This story is by nancy dohn and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The lake shimmers with reflections. Languid clouds float above, mirrored on the surface below. Scarlet sumac rims the shore dotted with evergreens and majestic Maples, red-tipped leaves wave good bye to Summer.
Night is drawing close. The Canadian Geese honk as the fly over the water, perhaps in protest of the setting sun or maybe due to the long flight ahead of them when they flee winter winds for a warmer climate.
What will winter bring? My heart could not get much colder. The lake will freeze and I fear one night icy fingers will claw their way over the frosty bank, across the sleeping garden and scrape their way into my room, encircling the beating organ with their cold grip, squeezing out what warmth remains.
The dark shadow of anxiety threatens. The kind, oh so very kind words, of my counselor filter in. “When you start feeling anxious take deep, slow breaths and focus on a favorite memory or thought that brings you happiness.” She means well.
The problem is, all memories lead to Michael, which then sets off a collage of Kodak moments starting with the first time I felt his breath on my cheek to the day his life sighed softly from between his lips.
I relive the day it all began. A sunny Saturday in Central Park when the first hint of Spring encourages New Yorkers to unbutton their coats and shed their scarves. I am one of them, out to enjoy a much-needed run.
It’s near the Great Lawn when I see a flash of golden fur coming my way. I swerve to avoid the dog and run right into a muscled wall, which turns out to be Michael jogging in the opposite direction. We go down in a sweaty pile.
Golden dog trots off, oblivious. For us, the collision is the start of an amazing two-year journey around the sun.
The warm coffee mug against my chest is comforting and I wonder what my life had been like before Michael. What had I done with my time? What had made me happy? Who had made me laugh?
“That’s not the best approach, Gina,” my counselor reminds me. “It isn’t important what you did before but what you are going to do now to move forward.”
Move forward. That’s what everyone wants me to do. My family. My co-workers. My friends. After all, they point out, enough time has passed and you have your whole life ahead of you.
Yes, I am keenly aware of the empty years that stretch ahead of me. Back from refilling my cup I find the sun has shifted and I am covered by its warmth. I watch the bees flit, seeking the last pollen the season offers. A squirrel chews on a piece of fern. My eyes melt and I float away.
I drift down to the lake, past flowerless stalks, heads drooping at the thought of winter. I look back at the cabin and see a figure curled in the rocker. Me? How very strange.
My gaze shifts back to the lake and I see, Michael? The figure is standing on the dock, eyes scanning the water, wearing the flannel shirt I bought him to help warm his cancer-ridden body. He looks so healthy and . . . alive.
I want to call out but am afraid he will disappear so I stand very still and watch, hoping he will sense my presence and turn. A noise startles the geese into flight. His eyes follow them and his image starts to fade. No! Stop! I am not ready to have you go. Not again!
I wake sobbing, coffee running down my legs with patterned ceramic shards at my feet. My eyes are on the dock only and I run toward it, hoping for what I am unsure of. A sign he has been here?
But the weathered planks share no secrets. As I turn I notice something in the reeds.
A young goose is struggling to fly but one wing hangs limply at a right angle. With soothing words, I approach the hobbling form, surprised that it allows me to come near. Gingerly, I touch the smooth feathered head. I wrap it in my sweater and gently carry it back to the porch. Now what do I do?
I call the owner of the cabin, which sets off a series of actions. It seems, folks who live the lake area take protecting wildlife very seriously and within twenty minutes I hear the crunch of tires in my driveway.
My breath catches as he rounds the corner, taking long, sure strides. His eyes scan the trees, an alertness that suggests he isn’t willing to miss anything. He nods when he sees me.
Doug is his name. We shake hands, his warm in mine. “Do you mind holding the goose while I take a look?”
“Of course not,” I say. The goose remains surprisingly calm under his touch, his hands move over the feathers gently. He leans back on his haunches. Our eyes connect.
“The issue is the one wing,”he says. It should heal fine but it will take a few days. Are you willing to play Mother Goose and nurse her back to health?” He smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners.
“I am not sure how good I will be at it.” My hands were helpless bringing Michael any comfort.
“My guess is you will be fine. She just needs to be kept quiet so the wing will heal and this porch is the perfect place.” He looks at the sky. “Winter is fast approaching and she needs to be able to fly with the flock South or she won’t survive.”
The goose, which I have dubbed Miss Nell, waddles over and hunkers down in a corner.
“I’ll stop by tomorrow to check on her.” I want to see his eyes again and feel the warmth of his hand, but he heads down the steps, giving a back-handed wave.
About noon the next day, I hear the crunch of tires in the driveway and I find Doug walking up, a bag of feed in one hand.
Feeding Miss Nell was not something I had thought about but I must say she is very happy to eat. Doug crouches down next to her, touching her gently and I feel a warm twinge.
A pattern starts to develop. The crunch of tires in the morning and then again in the evening and I have two mugs of coffee ready.
Miss Nell is healing well and is able to fly short hops. With shared concern we watch as the geese circle over the lake, gaining strength and endurance for the long journey. Miss Nell needs to be ready soon.
Then one evening, the driveway is silent. I find myself waiting. What is happening here? Am I actually feeling disappointment? Angry, I toss the waiting mugs of coffee. This is wrong. Grief is my company. Letting go of it would mean …what?
No answer comes to mind but fear. Fear that there would be nothing to fill the vast void that would remain. As long as I feel grief, I have Michael. I have us.
I am not sure when I fell asleep in the rocker but the sound of crunching tires wakes me. Doug rounds the corner of the cabin, two coffees in hand.
“What a night,” he says. Coffee steams between us. In the morning light his eyes are the same dark blue as the lake. The glacier in my chest threatens to recede.
He talks about a foal that had been born after a difficult labor, but both mother and baby are doing well. His capable fingers encircle the cup. I blush and look away.
A bumping on the screen door draws our attention. Miss Nell is trying to push her way out. When free she runs, flaps her wings and rises into the air.
“Wow, look at that,” Doug shouts proudly. “She looks great and ready to go. She’ll have no trouble heading South.”
His lean legs take great strides toward the lake, eyes never leaving Miss Nell’s sleek form above.
Miss Nell will be gone soon, and I feel a pang. I don’t want to be alone, with grief and empty years my only company.
Suddenly, I sense another presence and feel a soft sensation on my cheek. A breath? I stand very still.
“It’s okay. Go. You will always have me. I am just around the corner.”
I look back but see only dust particles floating in the sunlight.
“Hey, Gina, you gotta come see this. Hurry!” Doug waves at me from the dock.
When I reach him, he puts a flanneled arm around me, and we watch the geese circle overhead. Miss Nell has merged completely with the honking, flapping gaggle.
A tear rolls down my cheek. Perhaps it’s time for me to fly again, too.